Michael Ware


Deep in the heart of terror (Courier-Mail)

A Brisbane journalist has penetrated Iraq's network of insurgents, writes foreign editor David Costello
MICHAEL Ware has watched Arab extremists argue over whether he should be executed during terrifying encounters with insurgents in Iraq.
A former journalist with The Courier-Mail, Ware has reported for Time magazine on the ruthless men in the country's lawless Sunni triangle north of Baghdad.
He has rubbed shoulders with fighters from the Tawhid Al-Jihad faction led by new Al-Qaeda kingpin Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Such men behead hostages, and Zarqawi is believed to have wielded the knife that decapitated American Nicholas Berg in May.
Ware says these hardliners could turn on him in an instant, and this week told The Courier-Mail of one harrowing close call.
"In the past I have been in a room with people, a commander and his fighters who I know, and a stranger has walked in and in Arabic sought permission to execute me," he said.
"He then argued the toss and was told by the commander 'he is my guest', therefore I had the cloak of security. And this fellow reluctantly, in great protest, finally accepted that."
Ware says the Arab code of protecting invited guests gives him some security on assignments.
"With Iraqis, if they invite me, by and large I am fairly secure," he says.
"I mightn't be comfortable but I have a personal guarantee bound by age-old honour codes that I will be returned safely."
Ware, 35, worked at The Courier-Mail from 1995 to 2000.
His major stories included uncovering child abuse at the John Oxley Youth Detention Centre and the Neerkol orphanage at Rockhampton.
Ware was educated at Brisbane Grammar School and the University of Queensland from which he graduated with an arts/law degree.
He says the insurgents, who include Ba'athists, former members of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard and Feyadeen militia, nationalists and foreign terrorists, are using Time to get their message out.
Ware last month became the first Westerner to get one of Iraq's notorious hostage tapes, material that has until now only surfaced on Arab networks such as satellite TV station Al-Jazeera.
This message showed militants threatening to behead a Pakistani hostage, who was eventually freed.
Since then, Ware says, the insurgents, including members of Tawhid al-Jihad, have granted him a level of access that is "quite frightening".
He has received footage of terrorists preparing for and carrying out suicide bombings.
This week he received a Mujahideen video of militants involved in the killing of four US contractors in Fallujah in March.
The insurgents, says Ware, go to great lengths to ensure that coalition forces cannot follow him back to their lairs.
"I am blindfolded. I am transferred through many vehicles. Often it is done at night. We always take circuitous routes," he says. "I am always left in a state of confusion.
"I may recognise a room in a house that I have seen but I cannot tell you where that house is or where the weapons cache is or where the rockets they have shown me are."
The terrorists have clear motives for getting their message out, says Ware, and scaring Westerners away is only one part of it.
"It is also aimed at our public -- this is what you are sending our boys to fight," he says.
"It plays to a Muslim market -- in terms of recruitment, fundraising and incitement. There is also a political level where this stamps Zarqawi as the new star of the global jihad (holy war)."
Being the go-between in this sort of exchange is mind-warping, and Ware worries he has become too close to terror.
But he says he applies the same sort of "journalistic filters" he used when embedded with US special forces.
"This stuff is being generated with or without me. The attacks occur with or without me," he says. "I have been put in a position where I can access it first and I am able to make analysis of it."
That analysis is startling, as it reveals that some of the hard men from Saddam's secular gangster regime, the types who in past years Ware says would be "drinking and whoring", now say they are "fighting for Allah".
Their goal now, Ware wrote in Time last week, is to transform Iraq into "a training ground for young jihadists, who will form the next wave of recruits for Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups".
Ware says he has laid down ground rules for his contacts with these men. And he is emphatic that he will never again be a middleman in a hostage drama.
When he received the tape of the Pakistani hostage, he says, he became a participant, a situation he resented.
His response was to send "repeated requests and pleadings" for the man's release through the channels from which he received the tape.
"I suspect they were to no avail. His release was secured by other channels," Ware says. "I refused to be made a participant. I made it clear through that channel and all other channels into the resistance that any future hostage tapes I will return unopened."