8 Insane Things I Did After Being Kidnapped By Terrorists
In August of 2000, Jason "Singer" Smith and some friends earned a sweet corporate sponsorship that sent them to Kyrgyzstan to climb mountains. It should've been the adventure of a lifetime -- cultural misunderstandings, zany foreign sidekicks, a yeti! -- but instead, Jason and his friends wound up kidnapped by heavily-armed terrorists for more than a week.
This All Happened Before 9/11, When "Terrorist Kidnapping" Didn't Seem Likely
Several days into their trip, while they were preparing for a "warm-up" climb, something odd happened:
"Beth came over and said 'Singer, don't look right now' -- and the first thing I did was look -- 'there's these guys sitting across the meadow'"
We would have assumed they were just voyeuristic goatherds.
"So there's two guys wearing camouflage. All the Kyrgyz soldiers we'd met were wearing plain tan khakis. And these guys had beards ... the Kyrgyz soldiers hadn't had beards. I waved at them, they waved back, then stood and walked away, and we forgot about it."
Aw, they made friends! Maybe they were leaving to prepare a picnic for Singer and his hiking buddies?
"The guns are in case bears try to steal the picnic basket."
That day, at 6:15 a.m., Singer and his friends heard "a single high-pitched crack." Singer, who'd been hunting since the age of five or six, "immediately registered it was a gunshot," but feigned ignorance.
It was Beth who finally said the obvious.
"That was a gunshot, Singer."
The group could see three people at the base of the rock wall. They ran through the possibilities besides "kidnapping", because the human brain can rationalize just about anything:
"Maybe there's some kind of family emergency back in the U.S. and they need to contact us."
You know it's a shit situation when "Nana threw out her hip" would have been a better outcome.
Or maybe they have a crush on Beth and don't know how to approach. Or maybe they think Tommy's shoes are awesome and want to know where he got them. Or maybe they're going to fucking kidnap everybody. Obviously, in 2015, if you were woken up at your campsite in any-stan by a bunch of armed, bearded men, you'd immediately know you were about to be kidnapped by terrorists. But all this happened in August of 2000, before the word "terrorism" made up 60 percent of an average hour of Fox News.
The Kidnappers Were Strangely Polite
Singer was adamant that his kidnappers were fairly congenial, considering the circumstances.
"They weren't unfriendly, but not friendly either. It wasn't smiles and handshakes, but it was handshakes and what I'd call 'firm suggestions.'"
They told Jason and John to convince their friends to come down so the whole group could go back to base camp and have "some food and a conversation."
As the old Kyrgyz saying goes, "Speak softly and carry an AK-47."
Singer and his friends descended and met their kidnappers.
"This guy Obert was super-cool, actually. He looked exactly like Snoop Dogg. He was the kind of guy you see and just instantly want to hang out with. He had this really nice Patagonia jacket, and over that, he had this camouflage ammo vest, and in the pocket of that, proudly displayed, a tube of Colgate and a toothbrush.
"The other two guys were Abdul and Su. Abdul was clearly the commander-guy. He had this big bushy beard and an air of being a guy in charge. Su was just clearly a simple 19-year-old goat-herding kid. He wouldn't even shake our hands if Abdul didn't authorize it."
The kidnappers were not at all comfortable with Beth's presence. According to Singer, from their perspective, "she might as well have stepped off of Mars." They weren't sure what to make of three men and one woman sleeping alone on a cliff. This was an issue. A woman hadn't been a part of their plan.
It wasn't until 2007 that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan even started hosting a Lady's Night.
"You could see they wished she wasn't there. It was a big problem for them."
Beth sat next to her boyfriend to give the impression that they were married. Singer says they were "clearly relieved" to see Tommy "take responsibility" for her. Back at base camp, they met two more people: Abdullah and Turat, whose pants were covered in blood.
"Beth and Tommy had apparently met Turat before, and they told us he was a Kyrgyz soldier. And Turat explained that his three friends were dead. When these guys invaded the country, they captured Turat and killed three of his friends, and they used him to guide them to us."
It was around this point, three or four hours after that gunshot, that the first of the climbers -- John -- realized they were being taken hostage. No, it's not because they were dumb: we were all super naive before 9/11.
Don't worry. We'll overcompensate 'til we get it right.
Staying Alive Sometimes Means Letting Another Person Die
It became "quickly obvious" that the kidnappers didn't need Turat now that they'd captured the Americans. This fact was not lost on Turat:
"Abdul gave Abdullah a radio and sent him off, so there were three of them left ... Turat had his back to these guys, I was facing all of them. He bent down and pulled a tent stake out of the ground, probably 10-12 inches long. He clutched it tightly and held it close to his chest like it was a prison shank. He stared into my eyes with this ferocious, murderous, crazy intensity. The message was pretty clear: 'You and me, these tent stakes, right NOW!'
"This was within two minutes of realizing I was a hostage -- an entirely new reality I was still processing. That's when I realized how bad the situation actually was. Because Turat, based on everything he'd seen in the last 24 hours, was looking at this as the best opportunity he'd get."
Unless they were vampires, this was a shaky plan at best.
Attacking at that moment (and with tent stakes) seemed suicidal to Jason:
"... Obert and Su were 45 feet away, cradling their rifles and guarding us ... I faintly shook my head 'no.' I wasn't ready yet. I couldn't risk the lives of my friends, particularly Beth, without an extremely high probability of success."
Singer described the look in Turat's eyes in that moment as devastating.
"... Mentally, that's the moment Turat died. He gave up and knew his life was over ... The way his face changed in that moment is probably the worst thing I've ever had to witness, and is unforgettable."
The group headed down valley and across a plateau, dodging helicopter and foot patrols along the way. Jason and his friends didn't know it, but their kidnapping occurred in the middle of a border incursion by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU is a terrorist organization, trained in Afghanistan, which split its time between smuggling narcotics and resisting Uzbekistan's repressive dictator, Islam Karimov. Abdul and his crew of abductors were part of a large guerrilla force that attacked several villages and killed more than two-dozen Kyrgyz soldiers over the course of a week.
Today, you might better know them as part of ISIS.
The terrorists / freedom fighters of the IMU were men from Chechnya, Tajikstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, attacking soldiers from Kyrgyzstan. Jason Singer and his friends had stumbled into a small-scale war between people from several different nations whose names the average American couldn't spell, let alone find on a map.
They watched as Abdul and his men fanned out and set up an ambush for the Kyrgyz soldiers pursuing them. At some point, Abdul took Turat away from the group. The climbers took the opportunity to grab some shut-eye.
"While I was asleep, these soldiers filled up the opposite hillside, and suddenly a bunch of shooting started. Abdul came down, grabbed me and John, and told us to run across this exposed hillside to seek cover behind a large boulder. John went first and attracted gunfire the whole way, bullets impacting all around him. Abdul told me to go next. As I came up to the boulder, Turat was there. He'd been shot in the head a couple of times. He was facedown."
The Kidnappers Tried To Be Good Hosts
Okay, so Abdul is clearly a "bad guy." As in "It's bad to shoot a helpless person in the head." He and his team were terrorist kidnappers. But at one point, after escaping a firefight, the captives and their captors found themselves huddled in the dark with no food at all.
"Obert reached into his pocket and pulled out five pieces of hard candy, doing the math ... you saw him count it out, and he took one and gave us four the other pieces of candy."
We know "strangers with candy" aren't necessarily benevolent, but bear with us for a sec.
Singer said, "That was the moment I knew we could manipulate these guys and escape. They weren't bad people; this was just a job they signed up to do, in an effort to improve their own lives.
"The Quran teaches that travelers are a gift from God ... they were having this sort of dichotomy between being good kidnappers and being good hosts. I sensed that they wanted to take care of us ... and I knew we could exploit that element to turn the tables on these guys."
How would you exploit their desire to be good hosts to earn your freedom? Are you going to passive-aggressively shame them for not bringing a proper kidnapping gift until they let you go? Not quite ...
We Had To Gain Their Trust To Escape
Obert -- Snoop Dogg Oral Health Guy -- and Abdullah were sent off to go kill a goat. They were never seen again, and Jason later picked their pictures out of a binder "full of dead guy photos". Considering how many people with AK-47s were angry at them, that's probably not so surprising. Abdul and Su descended into a creek and "hunkered down" with the remaining captives. For the next few days, they'd walk at night and hide during the day.
From other dangerous men and/or vengeful goats.
"I spent all day long trying to scheme, looking at Su's gun and trying to figure out how it worked. Where's the safety? Is it even loaded? I'd never used an AK-47, and the consequences of failure were severe, so there's going to be a lot of self-doubt." He also added, "When you're talking about grabbing a person's gun and turning it on them, everything happens in a fraction of a second."
Singer described Su as a young, scared kid. But Abdul was a straight-up badass:
"Abdul had an RPK-74, a pistol, a hand grenade, a really big knife, and a potentially really bad attitude. So he was a very complicated situation to deal with."
Abdul was basically his own first-person shooter character.
Starting a gunfight or smashing their heads with rocks entailed a significant degree of risk and a bucket of future psychiatric issues.
"The best option is the one that ensures the least amount of potential future harm to ourselves, as well as pitting our strengths against their weaknesses. This means pushing them off a cliff."
First, he had to gain enough of his captor's trust that they'd trust him to be close to their bodies during a climb. Singer had his chance when the group had to cross a fast-moving creek.
"Su and Abdul couldn't swim. They were clearly terrified of crossing the creek. I grabbed a log and I start charging across. I got 3/4 of the way across and plunged off into the main current of the creek, and realized I'd totally fucked up and was probably going to drown like a heroic idiot. Fortunately, the tree was large enough to form a momentary eddy ... in that moment, I was able to grab some tree root and the creek's edge.
No better way to lull your kidnappers into a false sense of security than to be accidentally dead.
"I dragged myself out of the water, crawled up onto the boulder, and tried to appear relaxed and casual, although still trembling with fear. And I yelled at these guys, 'It's all cool, come across.'
"Then Abdul came across. He was teetering on the log. I had to put my foot down to stabilize it. I reached out to Abdul. He didn't trust me to take his hand, and I couldn't kick him off and be sure he'd drown. So I reached out with my hand, and he gave me his gun. Which was a real turning point. I gave it to John and said, 'Here, would you hold on to this?'"
Abdul, come on, homey. We've got to wonder what they taught you in kidnapping school? "Don't give your gun to your captives." It's literally day one material, man, right after "Kidnapping: It's not just for kids anymore."
We Threw A Terrorist Off Of A Mountain
John gave Abdul his gun back, and they crossed the river and continued on into the night.
In case you forgot, the guy still had a grenade.
We're sure some of you are already scrolling down to the comments section to type, "IF I'DA BEEN THERE, I'D HAVE SHOT HIM DEAD, THEN JUMPKICKED THE SECOND GUY INTO A BARREL OF GASOLINE WHICH WOULD EXPLODE LIKE PRKOOOOM, AND THEN I'D DROPKICK THE ..."
Well, Singer and his friends weren't as ready to take that risk as you, Anonymous Internet Tough Guy. So they kept going.
"Anytime we got somewhere where you had to use your hands and feet to climb, they would call me to the front and ask me what to do. Sometimes they'd even give me their guns. We'd always overdo it as far as being protective and making them feel safe, but I'm also constantly looking for the perfect spot where I can be certain they are both going to incur major harm if they go."
A cliff over rocks is good. A cliff over snake-and-knife-covered rocks is better.
"Abdul showed up and explained, 'The weather is bad, and we're all hungry. I'm going to go back to your base camp to get food and clothes, and you go with Su.' The way he described it was, 'You take care of Su, and I'll meet you guys later. We go to safe place.'"
Singer had succeeded in gaining enough of Abdul's trust that he was willing to leave them with timid, goat-herding Su, the Glass Joe of terrorists.
He even climbed like he was wearing boxing gloves.
Su and the captives started their way up the mountain. John and Singer shadowed Su for two hours, but never quite found the perfect spot to take him out. Around 45 feet from the top, by Singer's reckoning, Su climbed past John and Singer. This was their last opportunity. John started climbing up after the young, doomed militant, when the unexpected happened.
"... Tommy came flying. He charged up the rock, grabbed Su by the gun on his back, and yanked him off. Su turned around in the sky and looked at me the whole way -- in his mind, I was his friend who kept him safe. He had this desperate sad look on his face, and he hit the ledge in front of me and his body made this horrific popping sound, and he tumbled off this ledge into the darkness."
And down goes Glass Joe to the Star Punch. We know that sounds like a super callous joke to make after a kid got thrown off a cliff, but don't worry. Su survived to incompetently terrorize another day.
Don't Label The Bad Guys Yet -- The Situation Was Complicated
Singer and his friends made their way to a Kyrgyz military camp, and a few days later, to the relative safety of the U.S. embassy in Bishkek. In the wake of his kidnapping, Singer wanted to understand why it had happened. He felt it was the best way to honor Turat's memory.
"9/11 happened the next year. Most Americans tend to think the history started the next day, but you don't have to read much history to realize that's not the case."
Once he was back in the freedom-sodden streets of the U.S.A, Singer started unraveling exactly what he and his friends had gotten caught up in. He learned about Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, a man who tortures his enemies, massacres protesters, and jailed his own daughter.
But we're cool with him, under America's "no mustache, no problem" dictator policy.
Singer also learned that Uzbekistan is the world's second-largest exporter of cotton. They keep us all in designer underpants and fine towels, at the mere cost of a whole lot of slavery and human suffering. All the money from Uzbekistan's cotton sales go to support the Karimov regime. Their profit margins are the envy of the world, because they don't have to pay any of the pickers:
"They'll come into a doctor's office, grab everybody, and force them into the cotton fields. Grab children out of school and force them to pick cotton."
The chubby children of America might actually benefit from some state-mandated cotton picking.
The government stopped deputizing children under 16 in 2013, but they still actively conscript millions of people older than that every year. People are occasionally shamed into suicide by government officials for not picking enough, or die of one of the many complications that result when heart surgeons and lawyers suddenly become industrial farmers. Add all that to the Karimov government's policy of jailing and torturing random Muslims, and it's easy to understand why Abdul and his comrades were a bit miffed.
"That's what they were fighting against: religious suppression, severe corruption, a devastated economy, and environmental disasters."
The IMU supported their actions in Uzbekistan by moving Afghan heroin through Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government finally started cracking down on it, and that's what Abdul and his friends were invading to try to stop. The presence of four very-kidnappable Americans was icing on the cake. The IMU had made an estimated $1 million the year before by kidnapping four Japanese geologists, so doing it again seemed like a good career move.
If you give a terrorist a cookie, they will kidnap a glass of milk.
Abdul and his band had been paid something like $500 each to kidnap Singer and his friends and ransom them to the U.S. government. In our interview, Singer was understanding of their motives:
"They're simply people trying to improve their own lot in this world." He added, "Like everybody else."
Dang. It's like reality won't even give us good villains anymore -- everybody has to be all human and complicated and stuff.
We Went Back And Found Our Kidnapper
Obviously, Hollywood stepped forward with movie deals for the group. Right around the time they hucked a dude off a mountain, Cliffhanger-style, you could hear the studios start salivating. John and Singer went back to Kyrgyzstan with a writer to follow up on some loose ends:
"Su ... he survived. We met with Turat's family, and his mom wanted to know everything about it. And we went to see Su in prison. He kinda lit up like it was Christmas, he was so happy to see us."
You can learn more about Su in the upcoming film Straight Outta Stockholm.
That seems kind of crazy, right? Singer explains:
"There we were, both in a bad situation, working together toward a mutual goal: survival. We both tried to be friendly about it, and I felt no ill will whatsoever. Yes, it was an awkward conversation (through two translators), but I tried to convey that I was sorry about that whole off-the-cliff thing, and that it wasn't personal. I think we both got some kind of acceptance, or closure."
So ... how do you properly apologize for throwing your kidnapper off a cliff? Will a card suffice, or is there some kind of gift basket required?
Robert Evans's first book A Brief History of Vice is available for pre-order now. It's filled with guides to recreating ancient drug-fueled debauchery!
Ready to see what life is like on the other side of the metaphorical fence above? Then check out 8 Terrifying Life Lessons From A Former Terrorist. And because we're talking about terrorism here, let's take a moment to dump on the TSA in 7 Reasons The TSA Sucks (A Security Expert's Perspective).
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