Mr. Scott Taylor is a former soldier in the Canadian armed forces, and a current journalist and publisher. He runs the Canadian military magazine Esprit de Corps. Buy Scott’s books here.
In 2004 he was reporting on the war in Iraq when he and his Turkish colleague were kidnapped by a group of radical guerrillas. His story has been told in the hit TV series Locked Up Abroad (also known in Britain as Banged Up Abroad).
Below is my interview with Mr. Taylor about his harrowing experience and survival in the face of great danger. Speaking of “books, bullets and bad omens”, Scott is a man who has experience with all three…
Thank you Scott for your time!
1.) Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am an illustrator by training, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art & design. I enlisted in the Canadian Army for a four year basic engagement in 1982 and took my Commando training in 1984. After ‘retiring’ at the age of 25, I soon combined my art training with my military experience when I founded the magazine Esprit de Corps in August 1988. As a war correspondent my first reporting venture was the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
2) You served in the Canadian Military. Was the military in your “blood” through your family, or how did you end up making that career choice?
My father is a fantastic painter and illustrator and my childhood goal was to follow in his footsteps. However my father was also a military history buff and we shared a passion for studying conflicts. It was this interest which led to my post-graduation decision to become a soldier. I wanted to test my mettle as it were, and experience what I had so intently read about as a young man.
3) Did you see any action?
I did not see action as a soldier. My battalion was based in west Germany and we were prepared to wage WW3 should the Soviet Union invade. However, as a correspondent I have witnessed the horrors of frontline battlefields all around the globe. And I have had occasion to be caught up in combat situations.
4) After your service to your country, you became a writer and journalist. How did that transformation happen?
I had never envisioned myself as a writer, but once I started Esprit de Corps I realized that it was a wonderful ticket to numerous adventures and travel. I could now head up into the arctic with the infantry, sail aboard Canadian warships and submarines and fly off to wherever our troops were deployed internationally. I was not about to concede all that adventure to others while I stayed in my publisher’s office selling advertising!
5) You specialize in war journalism. Why? Is it the danger and adventure, or something deeper that draws you to the battlefields of the globe?
Having always studied war and warfare, and having trained as an elite soldier, my initial interest was probably a little bit of a rah, rah military cheerleader. However seeing the massive carnage created by the Allied air force against the primitively equipped Iraqi army in the desert of Kuwait, I became firmly committed to countering the pro-war propaganda.
6) Your Wikipedia page describes your writing as having a “strongly polemical slant”. What do you think they mean by that?
It means that I am prepared to swim upstream in my reporting. I challenge the de-humanization of our so-called enemies because I firmly believe that there are bad ‘persons’ but no such thing as a bad ‘people’ in this world.
7) In 2004, you and a Turkish colleague, Zeynep Tugrul, were in Iraq covering the American operations in the country. Can you give us some background on this assignment of yours? Who were you writing for? How did you prepare for this dangerous trip?
By September 2004, I had made a total of 20 trips into Iraq, before, during and after the US led invasion in 2003. As such I had established a vast network of contacts from all the various factions; Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab, Kurds, Turkmen etc. I was able to operate on an unembedded basis on all of those trips. I had a few major news agencies that were buying my syndicated reports (Aljazeera, Post media and some European newspapers). The key element to protecting myself was my trust in the friendships which I had made. Canada was not America and we were not involved in the occupation.
(Zeynep Tugrul. Photo: Free Republic)
8) While on that assignment, you and your colleague were kidnapped. How and where did the kidnap happen?
My Turkish colleague Zeynep Tugrul and I had been tipped off by an associate in Mosul that the Americans were about to make a major operation against insurgents in the city of Talafar. His reason for confiding in me was to deter me from heading into the danger zone. His words had the opposite effect and Zeynep and I hired a driver to take us to Talafar. I had been there earlier in the summer and I knew Doctor Bashar who was an influential Turkmen leader. U.S. paid police were still guarding the main entrance to Talafar and they insisted that if we were to proceed to Doctor Bashar’s house we need to be escorted by several masked gunmen sitting in a nearby car. I wrongly presumed this was a special forces unit of the police. It turned out to be the insurgent commander, Emir, the leader of the extremist group Ansar al-Islam and he was in full cooperation with the US paid police!
(Tal Afar, Iraq)
9) How did the first few days of the kidnapping transpire? The kidnappers almost executed you right away, am I right?
Within hours of us being detained, right after dusk, a roving execution squad from a rival group arrived where Zeynep and I were being detained. They came straight for me and had me against a wall to be shot before I could even fully grasp the enormity of what was happening. Zeynep stated them by yelling out “Don’t shoot him…He has a son!” Fortunately for me the Emir returned at that moment and ordered the execution halted.
10) Most people (myself included) would be paralyzed by fear in such a situation. What kinds of coping mechanisms did you employ to maintain your sanity?
The first execution scenario passed too quickly for me to fully react, but as I became resigned to my fate I found it easier. Once I knew I was going to die, it was easier than fearing that I might be killed.
11) The kidnappers once left a loaded rifle in your cell. Do you think they did this on purpose? What did you ultimately decide to do with the weapon?
The loaded gun was a complete goof up on the part of my guards. These were not professional soldiers and this was probably their first experience ever handling a prisoner. They were so concerned with strip searching me and thoroughly examining my clothing items that they forgot they had put down the rifle. I am very familiar with that type of rifle (Fabrique National SLR) and I checked to make sure the ammo and firing pin were not tampered with. However, as I did not know where they were keeping Zeynep and the fact that we were in the middle of an insurgent held town meant I decided not to try and shoot my way out with just 20 bullets. I attracted the negligent guard’s attention and quietly handed him back the weapon. This earned me his gratitude and trust.
12) How did the fact that your colleague was kidnapped with you affect you psychologically? Did it make matter better or worse?
To not be alone was a huge help, particularly at the beginning when we were held by turkmen extremists. She could easily communicate with them. Once we were transferred to an Arab group this was not the case. It was that group which extensively tortured both Zeynep and I. Following that, Zeynep was released (believing me to be dead from the torture) and I was sentenced to be beheaded.
13) Your kidnapping took place right around the beginning of the Iraq conflict. In other words: when we see the famous images of bombs going off and flames going up in the first days of the war, you are locked up somewhere in the general area, listening to the mayhem unfolding?
We were taken at the height of the insurgency in September 2004, well after the original invasion. However this was a major US offensive to force the insurgents out of Talafar. Therefore we were in the midst of the insurgents as the US pounded them with helicopter gunships and fighter jets. We were in at least as much danger from the US forces as we were from our captor during the battle. Hundreds of insurgents were killed or wounded that first night.
14) A leader of the insurgency had promised to consider releasing you, but he died in the nocturnal battles. How did this affect you two?
The Emir was literally the first insurgent killed in the battle. The US had been tracking his vehicle with drones in the days leading up to the attack. They used a Hellfire missile to execute him as the battle got underway. His death meant that what had been a ‘Muslim promise” to set us free(Emir to Zeynep) was now a ‘Martyr’s promise as he was killed in battle. That was why they had to hand us over to the second group in Mosul, because they had to obey this Martyr’s promise. At the same time Ansar al-Islam had never before released a western hostage. So they came to a compromise solution. They did not simply release me, but they did not kill me themselves.
15) Isolation sometimes has the effect of inviting spiritual reflection. Would you say this was the case with you?
I had some long talks with God asking not to spare my life (I felt it was too late for that) but to take care of my wife and son. And I am not a religious man in the traditional sense.
16) You witnessed a suicide bomb car assembled. Can you describe this to us?
When our convoy left Talafar there were about a dozen cars crammed to the brim with heavily armed fighters and ammunition of all calibers. At a specified rendezvous spot in the desert we all halted for them to pray towards Mecca. Then they gathered all the spare artillery shells etc and piled them into two pick-up trucks. Those vehicles were made into massive suicide bombs and the drivers were hailed by the remaining fighters as they drove back into the embattled Talafar.
17) How did the situation begin to de-escalate? When and how did the process that ultimately led to you two being freed begin?
Zeynep was released and I was tied to a bed in a safe house to await my beheading. It was to be the next morning at 7 am but at some point additional captors arrived to say the execution was being moved forward to 10 pm that night. I was actually relieved because I was in such pain from the positional torture. They put a knifee to my throat for what they said was a final game of ‘Knife or Life”. I was to answer each question knowing that a wrong answer would result in my death. When they said I was to be transported and released I still thought this was simply to prevent me from struggling until I was at my place of execution. Even when a new car arrived and my blindfold was removed I still felt it could be a trick.
18) What was it like to finally walk out of this?
Once I realized that the new driver had been drinking beer and was drunk, I actually began to let myself think I might actually live. That is when I realized that in preparing for death I had shut down my emotional responses. I liken the relief as turning the pilot light back on in my soul.
(Scott being interviewed immediately after his release)
19) How did you cope with this experience? Did you ever seek the help of a professional psychologist/therapist?
I did not seek any professional help. Being a journalist I could and did have my story published in great detail and I was able to ‘let go of the baggage’ in this manner by having the story retold. I also had the wonderful realization that I could once again see all of those people and things that I had mentally said farewell to while awaiting execution.
20) What would you say to other people who have gone through terrifying, possibly even traumatizing events?
Do not keep it bottled up inside. Re-visit the darker moments (with professional help if necessary) and look at the positive…I.e. You survived. Life is a wonderful thing.
21) What is your life like nowadays?
In the fourteen years since the incident I have continued to report from war zones and to write books and host documentaries. Iraq is now a no-go zone but I have covered Afghanistan extensively as well as Libya in 2011 and the frozen conflicts in the Caucasus.
22) Where can people keep up with your work?
Most of my work will end up on www espritdecorps.ca even if published first elsewhere.
23) Is there anything I forgot to ask about that you would like to say?
I cannot salute my colleague Zeynep enough for her bravery. It ended up being a bit of a role reversal in that the ex-Commando owes his life to the intervention of an intrepid young Turkish reporter.
And finally, my regular questions.
Your top 3 films?
Idiocracy (Mike Judge)
Your top 3 books?
The Last Battle (Cornelious Ryan)
The Second World War (Anthony Beevor)
Stalingrad (Anthony Beevor)
What model phone do you use?