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A Hostage’s Journey: The Story of Arjan Erkel

Erkel recounts his experience being kidnapped by Islamic militants

By Andrew Balcombe

“In 2002 I was contacted by the American embassy in [the Russian Republic of] Dagestan and was told that two of their people wanted to visit my Mêdecins Sans Frontiêrs Swiss (MSF) mission in Russia. The embassy said they do humanitarian work in Dagestan, so I had no reservations about meeting them.

When they arrived, however, it was clear they were not humanitarians. We had dinner together and they openly told me that they were military attachés. They said they wanted to observe the Russian military exercises off the coast of the Caspian Sea while embedded with us.

I said no. But during that time, MSF was closely watched by the Russian federal security service, the FSB. It was always suspected that we were spying for the West. Someone saw me talking with the Americans, so this did not do our cause much good at all. The FSB had already raided our offices and confiscated all of Our satellite phones. Soon after that, I was kidnapped.

On reflection, there are obviously a lot of things I would have done differently to avoid being taken as a hostage. Better training for my driver also would have been helpful.

When the FSB had previously warned us that we were being targeted, we sent six of our workers back to Moscow. But I didn’t want armed security. Working for a humanitarian organization, I was supposed to be neutral.

Like everyone else, I guess I never thought it would happen to me. I had just had dinner at the house of my fiancée’s parents and my driver and I were on our way home. On the road ahead, a Lada blocked the road and three men armed with handguns got out. My driver was slow to react and by then it was too late. I thought it was best to get out and walk toward them to avoid a shootout. If that was the right decision, I don’t know.They pistol whipped me then kicked me when I lay on the ground. When all the fight was out of me, they put me in the passenger seat with a gun against my head and one pressed against my heart and we drove off.

Afterward they said, ‘Why did you try to escape? Look, now there is blood all over the backseat.’ The beating broke my finger, put deep cuts in my scalp, and knocked out some teeth.

After a week I was handed over to a second group of people. The first group were criminals of some kind. But the second bunch, they were clearly Islamic militants.

The militants put me in an underground room with only a candle for light.

I felt completely alone and all sorts of things ran through my head. “Is this the end of my life? Should I try to escape?” It was like being partially buried in a grave, like I was in the twilight zone between life and death.

After the first two weeks, acceptance eventually came to me and that was the most important thing. I had to try and change the things I did have influence over, such as persuading them to let me have medicine for my injuries.

In the initial weeks, I was just treated like a piece of livestock with a price on my head. There were 12 men in the group; they had masks on, so I didn’t recognize them. That gave me a little bit of hope that I might be released. At first, I tried not to look into their eyes. I thought it might antagonize them. That’s what I learned anyway, but they asked me, ‘Why don’t you look at us? Are you afraid?’

I knew I had to make contact—a good relationship could save my life. If I showed them too much weakness, I would undermine their respect for me.
After that, I forced myself to look into their eyes. I wanted them to start treating me like a person.

These guys were macho and death was around them every day. The Russian forces were hunting for them all the time.I had seen the videos where their fellow militants had cut the throats of Russian prisoners. So despite my fear, I had to become macho and show I was not afraid to die. I wanted them to like me, so if the order came, they would hopefully debate among themselves whether to kill me.

Over time, I got them talking. In the beginning they just spoke about girls, politics, or religion, then slowly, we created a kind of relationship.

After acceptance, the most important thing I did to help myself was to keep my emotions under control. I worked on my social interaction with my kidnappers. After a while, I was invited out of my hole to talk to them while they cooked.
At other times, I was invited to play chess or just watch TV.”


“At a certain moment in time, I had to star in my own ultimatum video. The script was simple and consisted of ‘Hurry up; if you don’t pay by the end of June, I die!’

After the video, we talked about how they would kill me. I asked, ‘Will you cut my throat? Or put a bullet in my head?’ They said, ‘If we shoot you in the temple, there will be a large hole in the other side of your head. That wouldn’t be good for your family to see.’

There were other times when I felt close to death. If the Russian army was nearby, my captors would get very nervous. Once, they came to me and said, ‘Maybe we have to run for it, or maybe we will have to kill you because you will slow us down. Maybe the Russians will even kill you because you have a beard and a camouflage suit.’

Eventually we agreed, if the time came, they would shoot me in the middle of the forehead. They said it wasn’t 100 percent certain, but at least it would look better for my family. If I was going to die, then I wanted it to be fast.”


“After 20 months my captors said they were going to move me again, but I didn’t have to bring my stuff. I thought it was the end. But what can you do? I just did what I was told and hoped for the best.

They drove me around in the middle of the mountains until we stopped at a house. I said farewell and actually embraced the leader, who was known as ‘The General.’ I didn’t thank them for not killing me, but it could have been worse.

The new group put me in the trunk of a bigger car this time and told me not to feel offended. By this time, I was used to trunk travel. We drove to a village and I heard a lot of barking dogs. I was taken out of the trunk and brought to what I thought was a basement. Then they took off my blindfold and I saw two very scary-looking faces smiling at me. In 20 months, I had never seen anyone’s face.I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ They said, ‘You are free, welcome home.’ I said, ‘Welcome home?’ They said, ‘Yeah you are free, we freed you, there was a military raid and we freed you.’

I didn’t believe them; I thought they were just trying to taunt me. But then I looked around and saw that I was in the FSB office in Makhachkala.

They took me to a hotel and I washed.When I looked in the mirror, I saw I had lost a lot of weight, 18 kilos to be exact.I didn’t shave; the FSB said you shouldn’t shave until you get back to Moscow because it looks like you have been through an ordeal.”


“I heard three days before my liberation, the Dutch embassy received a phone call stating one million euros should be paid as ransom for me. The embassy assembled the money and gave it to a group of ex-Russian KGB veterans. What they did with it and where the money ended up, I don’t know.

A court case was fought between MSF and the Dutch government later. The Swiss court ordered that MSF pay 500,000 euros (half the ransom) back to the Dutch.

Initially, the ransom was going to be kept a secret and the line that I was freed by a military action was going to be held. This didn’t last long though. A worker from MSF soon told the story to the French newspaper Le Monde and the truth came out.”


When I was kidnapped I tried to understand the people who held me captive. Later, I started thinking about the situation in the West with youths wanting to go on jihad or become terrorists.

I sought out a man named Samir Azzouz who seemed to be radicalized and I interviewed him in prison. I visited him three times and he gave me his journal. I used his story as an example of how young people around the world have the same set of ideals. I described how he radicalized, what his views are, and the views of his group. If we don’t understand the causes of radicalization we will never be able to effectively prevent it.”


In January 2003 Samir Azzouz and a friend were arrested on the Ukraine border with Chechnya. They wanted to join the jihad to fight the Russians. After their release because of lack of evidence, they were sent back to the Netherlands. On their arrival, every move they made was monitored by the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD).

In 2004 two of Azzouz’s friends, a Dutch Moroccan, Mohammed Bouyeri, and a Dutch American, Jason Walters, were arrested for murder and attempted murder. Bouyeri killed the Dutch filmmaker and Islam critic Theo van Gogh while he was riding his bike in Amsterdam. Using an HS 2000 9-mm pistol, Bouyeri shot van Gogh eight times then cut his throat, nearly decapitating him. Taking a second dagger, Bouyeri pinned a message from the Koran into van Gogh’s chest, along with a death list, including the names of several politicians.

Bouyeri managed to shoot a policeman before he was shot in the leg and subdued; the policeman survived, saved by his body armor.

In December 2006 Azzouz was arrested in the Netherlands for the third and final time. The public Prosecution Service accused him of being the leader of a group of Islamic radicals called the Piranhagroep. Azzouz was accused of several crimes, including plotting attacks on the AIVD headquarters in Leidschendam, the national parliament in the Hague and a nuclear power station in the south of the Netherlands.

Jason Walters, the son of an African American soldier who served in the Netherlands and a Dutch mother, was also a senior member of a terrorist cell called the Hofstadgroep. Bouyeri was a member of the same cell.

On November 10, a few days after Mohammed Bouyeri was arrested, a Dutch police arrest team raided Walters’s home in the Hague’s Laakkwartier. At 2:30 a.m., a battering ram was used to try and break down the front door. In response, Walters threw a Yugoslavianmade fragmentation grenade from an upstairs window. The explosion injured four police officers. The arrest team then fired shots and withdrew, taking their wounded with them.

An hour later, the Dutch Marines Counter Terrorism Unit, the Bijzondere Bijstands Eenheid (BBE), arrived and a sniper section from the Dutch Royal Military Police, the Brigade Speciale Beveiligingen (BSB), set up firing positions on adjacent roofs. At this time, a 7-km-wide, no-fly zone was being enforced above the city and government helicopters circled the building.

Walters later told his friend Azzouz that while all this was going on outside, he often slept. Walters also told Azzouz that he called the police emergency line 112 and told them a “large number of terrorists were in another building just down the street.”

At 14:30 the next afternoon, police advised any civilians still in the area to take cover. The local energy company then shut down the power to the apartment.

At 17:15 BSB snipers fired shots into the apartment and Walters was hit in the shoulder. Twenty minutes later the BBE used a frame charge to breach the door and storm the entrance of the building. Walters and another man sharing the flat with him surrendered and Walters was Taken to a hospital. A motorized robot was sent further into the building to search for any booby traps but none were found.

Walters was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and membership in a criminal organization.

Samir Azzouz spends his days in the terrorism wing of Vught prison in the southern Netherlands reading the Koran and learning Russian. He has four years of his sentence left to serve.

Arjan Erkel works as a guest speaker for international organizations and companies, and donates time to several charities. He has also written another book called YEP, which promotes “Young Ethnic Professionals.”


Mr. Balcombe is an Australian freelance journalist and cameraman based in the Netherlands. He reports on international justice, defense, and security issues. This article is based on his interviews with Arjan Erkel.


Samir, by Arjan Erkel

Balans, Amsterdam copyright 2007 ISBN 978 90 5018 870 8 (uses material taken from the diary of Samir Azzouz and interviewed him face to face)

“Media Silence on Van Gogh Killer’s Islam Views”. NIS News. 2007-11-05. Retrieved 2008-03-23.

Terror on Trial: First hand report on the Hofstadgroep trial by Emerson Vermaat

The Secret Life of Mohammed Bouyeri Gunman kills Dutch film director, retrieved July 21, 2009

“Man accused of Van Gogh killing refuses to recognize Dutch court”

Jan Kanter: Mohammed B. schweigt, Die Welt, July 12, 2005

Anthony Browne: Muslim radical confesses to Van Gogh killing in court tirade, The Times, 12 July 2005

Jan Kanter: Van-Gogh-Mörder hält Attentat für Waffe I’m Glaubenskampf, Die Welt, February 3, 2006

Requisitoir in de strafzaak tegen Mohammed B. (Indictment of the criminal case against Mohammed B.) (Waybacked).

“Life in jail for brutal killer of Dutch film-maker Van Gogh”

The Counter Terrorist is a magazine published by Security Solutions International, which also produces the Counter Terrorist Newsletter, Webinars and interactive learning, as well as the annual Homeland Security Professionals Conference.