January 15 was a relatively quiet day for Baghdad, the bomb-battered capital where Waiel El-Maadawy, an Army veteran and former Florida sheriff’s deputy, had spent years as a contractor for the U.S.-led effort to train Iraqi security forces.
El-Maadawy was feeling relieved. He’d just hired an Iraqi he knew, a man nicknamed Abu Marina, as an interpreter to help with the urgent task of training Iraqi commandos to fight Islamic State jihadists. He and two fellow contractors – his cousin, Amr Mohamed, of Bullhead City, Arizona, and Russell Frost, of Wichita, Kansas, sealed the deal over tea at Abu Marina’s apartment in southeastern Baghdad.
About half an hour into their visit, the commander of a Shiite Muslim militia showed up, demanding to know who the Americans were and ordering them to stay put. At first, the contractors scoffed at the intrusion – they had pistols on their hips and Iraqi Special Forces authorization in their pockets.
“We walk outside and he was right – we can’t leave. There were 40 guys there with heavy weapons,” El-Maadawy recalled. “That’s when everything went downhill. We realized we were going to be taken.”
That was the beginning of a 31-day ordeal the Obama administration has never explained, and which is described in detail here for the first time, through a series of interviews with El-Maadawy, a phone interview with Frost, and with the cooperation of Mohamed, who is currently out of the country.
After weeks of shackles and beatings, the Americans were released Feb. 16, only to find that Iraqi officials had stained their reputations by saying that they’d been detained from a brothel. There was more dismay when El-Maadawy and Mohamed, Egyptian-American cousins, learned that some U.S. officials initially suspected that they’d been radicalized and perhaps were complicit in the incident.