Book review: The ISIS Hostage

Danish photojournalist Daniel Rye endured beatings, torture, cramped spaces and hunger as a hostage of the Islamic State in Syria, topped off with the regular threat of beheading, writes Cormac O’Keeffe.

Puk Damsgard

Atlantic Books, €16.50

THERE’S a black and white photograph in the opening pages of The ISIS Hostage. It’s of the hostage: Daniel Rye, a young Danish photojournalist.

He stands in darkness and appears to be looking sadly out of some sort of blackened out window.

Even in the gloom, his blond hair stands out. But apart from a mood of despondency, there is no other emotional connection.

However, by the time you finish reading the book, it’s difficult to dwell on the image.

It’s hard to accept that such horror happened to an ordinary young man, who only wanted to tell of the suffering of the Syrian people. 

Daniel was one of 24 hostages — 19 men and five women — taken captive by the so-called Islamic State, the bulk of them in 2013. They were all journalists, photographers or aid workers.

The author of the book is fellow Danish journalist Puk Damsgard, a veteran Middle East correspondent. 

It is to her credit, and the mark of an old-school journalist, that she leaves the telling of the tale, in the main, to the experiences of the main actors. 

The quality of the writing itself, however, is mixed. Sentences are sometimes clunky and flat, other times sharp and gripping.

At the start, we come across Daniel, post release, on a flight to the United States for the funeral service of James Foley — the American journalist who was beheaded by ISIS in August 2014. 

His British killer, the notorious ‘Jihad John’, became a household name at the time.

Out of his 13 months in captivity, Daniel spent eight of them with Foley, who converted to Islam during his imprisonment.

After the prologue, the reader is brought back to how Daniel came to be in Syria, where his life, and his family’s, was ripped apart in May 2013.

Daniel came from a modest background: his mother Susanne was a hairdresser and his stepfather Kjeld was a lorry driver. His dad, a fisherman, died when he was just three. 

Daniel had two particular talents: gymnastics, where he competed at national and international level, and photography. As the Syrian civil war erupted, he became interested and wanted to capture the experiences of its citizens at the hands of the Assad dictatorship.

In April 2013, he flew to Gaziantep in southern Turkey and met up with a ‘fixer’, a local used by journalists, and networked with other journalists and aid workers. 

On his return to Denmark, he had a phone conversation with a man known only as Arthur — a security consultant who came to have a pivotal role in his life. 

He advised Daniel against the trip to Syria, saying the risk of kidnapping had grown since 2012 and that journalists were fair game among Islamist rebel groups.

“If Daniel were kidnapped, the golden piece of advice was: never tell a lie, create a routine for yourself and play the game,” Damsgard writes.

Daniel said his goodbyes to family and his girlfriend Signe and supplied them with contact numbers, including for Arthur.

From the start, he encountered problems and his photojournalism didn’t last long. After meeting the ‘local authorities’ Daniel, aged 24, was handcuffed and blindfolded. 

His parents didn’t get the scheduled phone call from him and they rang the police. The fixer rang Arthur, who discovered Daniel’s captors were ISIS.

Daniel’s hell had only started.

It was an existence that would be dominated by disgusting sanitary conditions, beatings, torture, cramped spaces, hunger, heat and cold.

And there were death threats — of beheadings and the like.

These were interspersed by little moments of indulgences, like toilets and decent food. Early on, he made an escape attempt, but was quickly caught and beaten.

“He had reached a state of total exhaustion,” Damsgard writes. “Three weeks had now passed since he had been captured and he was starving, thirsty and urinating in his

trousers. His body simply couldn’t take it anymore.” He had more than 12 months to go.

He was moved throughout his captivity and, in the first stages, he was held in various parts of a children’s hospital in Aleppo.

There he tried to take his own life, by hanging, but it didn’t work.

Slowly, other prisoners joined him.

His torment continued, suffering terrible wounds to his hands and wrists.

And there was humiliation: forced to bark like a dog and bray like a donkey to his captors.

Susanne went a month without hearing anything. Then news came through via Arthur of talk of $700,000 ransom demand.

But the family was in a Catch 22: the Danish State prohibited payment of money to terrorist groups.

Around July, the family received their first picture of Daniel.

More prisoners joined Daniel: one from Denmark and more from France and Britain, and later Americans, including James Foley.

They were moved around regularly. They gave their various prisons names, like ‘The Box’, ‘Cigar Box’ and ‘The Dungeon’.

The prisoners played games and told stories — often of simple pleasures — to try and pass the time.

Daniel did his gymnastics and showed the others exercises.

The guards were mainly from the same countries as them, particularly Britain and France.

The prisoners called four of their captors, all British, ‘The Beatles’, and gave them the bands’ names. These guards were “feared the most”.

At one stage, Daniel had a gun shoved into his mouth. Another time, a sabre was held against his neck and he was asked did he want to lose his head.

Interpersed with Daniel’s tale, we follow the lives of Arthur and Daniel’s family.

The book gives an insight into the resourcefulness and expertise of Arthur, who was also trying to find Foley.

Daniel’s parents half-lived and had to shield Daniel’s situation from everyone — as they didn’t want it to get into the media and inflame the situation.

At Christmas time, Foley’s parents got an email demanding $100m for his release.

At the time, the guards told Daniel he was going home — but it didn’t happen.

As bombs pounded around them in Aleppo, they were moved to Raqqa, the ISIS capital, where after a brief respite, the beatings and kickings resumed in their new jail, ‘The Quarry’.

Prisoners from Spain and France, where governments allowed ransoms to be paid, began to be released, dispiriting Daniel further.

A fresh demand of €2m was made for Daniel. His family had no choice but to risk publicity and began a massive fundraising campaign.

While the law prohibited financing terrorism it didn’t specifically criminalise the payment of a ransom to save a life.

On his 25th birthday, the guards gave Daniel a kick for every year.

The family eventually collected the money.

Now, they had to get it, all in cash, to the Turkey border. This was where Arthur stepped in again, an intriguing passage in the book.

On 19 June 2014, Daniel tasted freedom.

He had nightmares about being kidnapped and flinched when someone made a sudden noise.

His girlfriend Signe had moved on — another terrible price he paid.

Somehow, he forgave his captors. 

“He found it easier to forgive than to be angry and filled with hatred,” Damsgard says.

Daniel survived. Unlike James Foley and six other of the prisoners.


Much has been said about the perils of being stuck in the house 24/7, like family pets interrupting your important conference calls, your partner leaving their dirty dishes everywhere and the lack of respite from the kids.Silver lining: Seven enforced money-saving habits you might want to continue after lockdown

Put you and your loved ones' pop-culture knowledge to the test with Arts Editor Des O'Driscoll's three fiendishly fun quiz rounds.Scene and Heard: the Arts Ed's family entertainment quiz

A passion for heritage and the discovery of some nifty new software has resulted in an Irish architect putting colour on thousands of old photographs, writes Marjorie BrennanBringing the past to life

Richard Hogan, family psychotherapist, addresses a reader's question about life during lockdownHolding on: how to help your child through the crisis

More From The Irish Examiner