When Russell Frost grabbed his 9 mm gun and cocked it in an unfamiliar neighborhood in southern Baghdad, he knew he was in trouble.
Frost grew up in Wichita and didn’t have military training. He was a mechanic. But he had worked in the Middle East for more than a decade, so on Jan. 15, he was under no illusions about the danger he faced.
A man stood in front of Frost’s van and hid something behind his leg. Frost looked around the parking lot and saw men standing by doorways and leering around corners. The parking lot exit was blocked.
Frost looked up to see the barrel of a gun pointed at him from an apartment window. “Man, this is not good,” he thought. “This is not good.”
Frost’s two co-workers, Amr Mohamed and Waiel El-Maadawy, were arguing nearby in Arabic with two men who had approached them. They were joined by another 20 or 30 men, with guns larger than theirs.
El-Maadawy came over to the car and told Frost he needed to hand over his gun. “Are you sure?” Frost asked. “Are you sure you want me to do this?”
“Brother, look in the rear-view mirror,” El-Maadawy said. “Look around, we’re (screwed).”
“Are you sure they’re not ISIS?” Frost asked.
El-Maadawy had seen a picture of a radical Shiite cleric on one man’s phone. The cleric sometimes worked with the government. It was a slim hope, but based on how outgunned they were, El-Maadawy thought, it was their only hope.
El-Maadawy repeated himself twice before Frost handed over his gun, as several armed men jumped into the van and told them to drive.
Back in Wichita, Frost’s wife, Tammie, had stopped by the Maya Angelou Library, where her daughter Amanda worked. She asked whether Amanda had heard anything from Frost.
When Frost first left for Kuwait in January 2005, he had to use calling cards to call home. Now he had a cellphone with an international plan and could video-chat with his grandson, Brixton, on birthdays.
Tammie frequently talked to her husband in the morning before work, because of the eight-hour time difference, but thought he must have been busy that day.
Tammie and Amanda had grown accustomed to living with and brushing aside uneasy feelings. They had called Frost over the years and heard gunfire and explosions in the background. The phones would stop working midsentence. Sometimes Frost got busy and couldn’t call home for a couple of days.
So even though something felt slightly off, while Tammie did yard work, Amanda drove to Lawrence the next day to watch the Jayhawks men’s basketball team beat Texas Christian University.
Frost is just one of thousands of contractors in the Middle East who work for the U.S. government’s military and intelligence operations, about 70 percent of whom are U.S. citizens. They are civilians who, as Frost put it, do a lot of the work the military doesn’t want to do anymore.
Often it’s innocuous work such as cooking or mechanics, what Frost taught.
Between 2003 and 2011, there were hundreds of thousands of contractors in the Middle East. But as the military withdrew most of its soldiers, many of the contractors left, too. Tens of thousands remain, and in 2015, there were three times as many contractors in Afghanistan as U.S. soldiers.
Frost had taken a job as a contractor in the Middle East after he was laid off from Boeing. The generous pay had allowed Frost to move his family from an apartment to a large house. But as the number of contracts decreased, so did the pay. And, as it turned out for Frost, so did security.
In his previous nine years, Frost had always lived on a U.S. military base, guarded by soldiers. For his latest contract, which started in 2014, he lived with Iraqi forces on a base near the airport and traveled throughout Baghdad without a military escort.
His partners on Jan. 15, Mohamed and El-Maadawy, are both Egyptians who became U.S. citizens. Mohamed married a Kansas woman in Manhattan in 2001. El-Maadawy moved to Florida from Egypt at age 2, worked as a police officer, served in the military and had three children. After 9/11, they became valuable to military contractors because they spoke Arabic and had police and military experience.
But for Frost, this was the first contract on which he had been issued a handgun.
Some Iraqi special forces didn’t know how to use a wrench, he said, let alone understand the inside of an engine. And he didn’t know Arabic, so he relied on local translators in his classes.
But by the beginning of 2015, his team had lost trust in one of its three translators. The translator asked too many questions unrelated to the job and charged too much for supplies they asked him to pick up.
So when El-Maadawy, Frost’s boss, received a call from a translator whom he had previously worked with, they traveled into Baghdad on Jan. 15 to recruit him.
El-Maadawy had met with the translator at an apartment in Baghdad once before and didn’t have any reason to suspect they were being set up.
Frost and El-Maadawy were held at gunpoint inside their own van as their captors drove toward Sadr City, one of the poorest and most crowded areas of Baghdad, a section that had more than 7 million residents squeezed into an area half the size of Wichita. Before the U.S. troop surge in 2008, Sadr City was home to some of the most deadly fighting and attacks in Iraq.
“Oh great, that’s the last place I want to be,” Frost thought.
Mohamed and the translator, Abu Marina, were being driven to Sadr City in a separate vehicle.
Muqtada al Sadr, the powerful Shia leader in the neighborhood, formed new militias in 2014 to help the Iraqi government fight ISIS. Sadr has strong ties to Iran, and though he sometimes works with the Iraqi government, he is also one of its most powerful critics.
Frost and El-Maadawy, who arrived before Mohamed and the translator, were taken inside a building with weapons and a mural of Sadr. One of the armed men kicked at Frost’s knees from behind until he dropped to the floor. They handcuffed El-Maadawy, but because Frost stands about 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs more than 300 pounds, the handcuffs wouldn’t shut.
So they yanked together several zip-ties, which cut off circulation to his hands and dug into his wrists until they bled.
They shoved a dirty rag over Frost’s eyes and face and wrapped clear packing tape so tightly around his nose that Frost had to gasp for each breath.
Frost didn’t think he was going to survive. “What are my kids going to do, what’s my wife going to do?” He panicked.
“Just slow down and focus on your breathing,” El-Maadawy told Frost.
“I know what you’re thinking,” El-Maadawy told him. “It’s not over yet. We still have a chance to survive. Stay calm. And no matter what happens, don’t let them know you are in pain or afraid.”
On Jan. 17, Tammie Frost answered a call at 12:52 p.m. from someone at Frost’s company, a subcontractor for the defense firm General Dynamics: “I’m sorry to meet you like this, Mrs. Frost; however, your husband has gone missing.”
“Missing?” Tammie asked. “How do you mean he’s gone missing?”
“Ma’am, he went with two others to meet with an interpreter and failed to report back,” she was told. “Is there a friend I can have come over to help you?”
“My best friend is over there. Just bring him home,” she said, breaking into tears.
The FBI interviewed the whole family, including Tammie’s parents, who drove up from Oklahoma that night. The agents asked the family to describe any tattoos or scars on Russell Frost’s body. They took saliva samples from the children and asked Tammie to track her husband’s phone and bank records. The FBI took photos of Frost and tapped their phone.
Agents told the family to keep what had happened a secret. The story was on the national news that night, but the names of those captured were not.
Daughter Madison, 15, a freshman at Goddard High School, was just 4 when her dad first left for Kuwait, and she didn’t understand then that he would be gone for years at a time. She didn’t get to talk to Frost as frequently as her mom and say what she desperately wanted to tell him then: “I miss you and I love you.”
This was the first time Americans had been kidnapped in Iraq since 2010.
On Jan. 16, the day after they were captured, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had complied with the initial phase of its nuclear arms agreement with the U.S.
The agreement was a historic accord that would provide economic relief to Iran in exchange for opening its nuclear program to inspections and destroying nuclear material.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who was running for president, said the three hostages were proof that Iran thought it could push President Obama around and demand ever-more concessions.
To have three Americans taken by a Shia militia group with ties to Iran was a test of the country’s new relationship, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Secretary of State John Kerry asked his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, at an economic meeting in Switzerland whether Iran could do anything to help free the three hostages.
Frost was thrown against the wall in a small concrete cell. He slid to the floor and heard the door lock.
They were held in an old factory with a makeshift roof. At first, Frost didn’t have a blanket or anything to sleep on. It was the middle of winter, when the temperature dropped to near freezing. After a few days, they gave him a thin piece of foam, a metal box spring and a sponge for a pillow.
He showed the blood on his wrists every time someone entered his cell until, a few days later, his captors removed the zip-ties that had made his hands and feet numb and replaced the bindings with tractor chains.
Most of the time, Frost stared at the floor through his blindfold, with barely any light seeping through, and thought about his family.
Brenda Mohamed, Amr’s wife in Bullhead, Ariz., tried to call her husband as she did every morning, around 6 a.m. But when she called that Friday, the phone didn’t stop ringing.
Unlike Frost, Amr Mohamed had already worked on several contracts that put him in danger. The previous contract in Libya was the one that had scared Brenda the most because he worked on his own and she would not hear from him for days.
So when Mohamed was invited back to Iraq, Brenda felt relieved, because on his previous contracts in Iraq, he had worked alongside soldiers.
The details of his missions are mostly secret, Mohamed said, but he worked in Iraq before the war in 2003 and was on the ground in Benghazi in 2012 when the U.S. embassy was attacked.
Not only did Mohamed have the highly coveted ability to speak several dialects of Arabic, he also had done police intelligence work in South Africa.
Amr and Brenda Mohamed spent the first year of their marriage in 2001 living near Salina, where she grew up, before moving to Nebraska and then Arizona. For a while, Mohamed traveled to Fort Riley for his National Guard duty.
When she called Mohamed again that morning, someone picked up and then shut off the phone. “That’s weird,” she thought. “He’s obviously in the middle of some assignment or mission.”
They had an understanding that he would always get in touch every 72 hours. “OK, he’s not going to be available for the next few days,” she thought. “So I need to sit tight and see what happens.”
Mohamed, 49, was only two years older than Frost but acted elderly and frail, to elicit sympathy. He begged for Zantac to help with his ulcer, aspirin for his headache and water for his kidneys.
When Mohamed was in the National Guard, he’d earned the nickname “Honey Badger,” he said, because he treated “hostages” so viciously during simulations.
Although he is Sunni, he had memorized passages of the Quran and talked to his captors about Islam. They found pictures of Mohamed with famous Iraqi politicians on his phone. They began to think they had caught someone important, they told him, but he said the pictures were just relatives and friends.
They let Mohamed take off his blindfold only during the one shower they allowed him after about two weeks. During the shower, with the door closed, Mohamed said, he rubbed the cloth against the rough concrete, wearing it down so more light would get through.
When it was Frost’s turn to shower, he said, it took him several minutes to see because his eyes had crusted over.
Frost would rarely ask for anything. He would go to the bathroom or take food when they offered. At first, the captors thought Frost was in the CIA, because he refused to tell them anything.
But most of the time, Frost just sat on the edge of his bed, silently, thinking about his family. Sometimes, when he thought about his kids, Mohamed would see him cry, which was hard to watch in a man as large as Frost.
When the three of them were brought together for a day every week, Mohamed would complain, lugubriously, “Guys, I am bone and skin, bone and skin. Please tell my wife I love her. I am going to die here.”
“Amr,” Frost told him. “Look at the big picture. I am sure we will get out of here.”
Brenda, Mohamed’s wife, was a trauma nurse who now managed other trauma nurses, and she was used to dealing with daily tragedies. So she did not break down when she heard what had happened to Mohamed.
She just focused on the next step: She called her parents.
About five years after she married Mohamed, she converted to Islam and began to dress modestly and wear a hijab. To her, Islam and Christianity are not that far apart. But it took a long time for her family to accept the change, and when she would return home on Ramadan, she said, her Kansas family thought it was strange that she fasted until sunset.
Now she not only had to tell her parents that Mohamed had been captured but that the FBI had asked about his loved ones. FBI agents wanted to visit the homes of her two grown daughters from another marriage, one of whom still lives in Kansas.
They had all become “soft targets.” So in addition to providing counseling, the FBI would provide protection, she was told. The fear was that, if the captors could reach his family, they might persuade Mohamed to reveal secret information they suspected he had about the U.S.
It was upsetting for Brenda’s mom, who was 76, that Mohamed had put her grandchildren in danger.
“This is what he does for a living,” Brenda told her. “He does it for our government. He is requested. There is a reason for it.”
“Dude, you are skipping steps,” El-Maadawy yelled at one of the captors as El-Maadawy pulled his hand out from between metal shears, but not before cutting his finger. “You have to ask me a question first, tough guy.”
That made the guard mad, and he beat El-Maadaway.
When El-Maadawy heard Frost’s or Mohamed’s chains clinking toward the bathroom, he would say, “How are you doing? I’m fine. Just hang in there.” El-Maadawy wanted them to know that he had not been killed yet, that they still had each other and to stay hopeful. But it led to more beatings.
Once, his captors put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. But nothing happened. “Is there something wrong with your weapon or can you not afford bullets?” El-Maadawy asked. Someone put a knife to his throat.
El-Maadawy couldn’t help himself; their captors sounded so young and stupid, he had to talk back. It was his curse, he thought, that he couldn’t shut up. “It is the only way I can fight back,” he thought.
The guards bragged about their military training in Iran and with Hezbollah in Lebanon. But when they heard a helicopter fly overhead, he would hear them say, “If the Americans come, I am telling. I am not going to hide anything.”
El-Maadawy counted the days by listening to broadcasts of the morning prayer. It also gave away the time of day when they were moved from one location to another, hours before sunrise, every week.
To get through the pain, El-Maadawy imagined himself back home, going about his day: at the farmers market or cooking the spaghetti and giant meatballs his three children in south Florida loved.
Crystal, Frost’s middle daughter, tried to carry on as normal at Wichita State, but she found herself drifting off in class, waiting for news. The FBI gave her a generic letter to give to her professors if she needed to miss class, but she couldn’t tell anyone else about what had happened.
The silence was especially hard for Madison, the youngest, a freshman in high school, as she prepared for her first winter formal dance. “It was really hard not to just break down and tell someone that I really trusted,” Madison said. “I had to come home and do that alone.”
Amanda, Tammie’s oldest daughter, would call her mom 10 times a day, she said, only to be told that there was no news.
They would come home and scream at each other and cry, and then an hour later comfort each other with a hug. Sometimes they let each other be alone; sometimes they wouldn’t let each other out of their sight.
They left the TV on in case there was news and scoured the internet for information on the three groups that they had been told most likely were holding Frost hostage.
They tried to protect Brixton, Frost’s only grandson. They threw him a small party for his sixth birthday, but his mother, Amanda, felt guilty about laughing or smiling.
“He’s OK, he’ll call, we’ll hear something, they’ll find him soon,” Amanda thought but then would go to a dark place. “Oh, my God, what if he’s not alive? What if he’s hurt? What if he needs help and he’s not getting it?”
When they sat around the dinner table as a family, in addition to “How was your day?” they continued to ask each other, “What are we going to do when Dad gets home?”
Hostages have become a huge source of revenue for terrorist organizations. Between 2008 and 2014, the U.S. estimates, radical Islamist groups received $200 million in ransom. Although some European nations take a more flexible stance, the U.S. will not pay ransom.
The Obama administration has faced criticism from families of hostages for not sharing enough information and even threatening the families with prosecution if they tried to pay a ransom on their own to a terrorist group.
The executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by ISIS in 2014 had brought the terrorist group fame and attention in addition to being a catalyst for an increased American response.
The Obama administration in 2015 changed how the government responded to hostage situations, including setting up a special “fusion cell” headed by the FBI, which coordinated between federal agencies and the families.
The FBI continued to advise the families to keep quiet because it didn’t want captors to think they had “a great prize” on their hands that might make their release more difficult. (A representative for the FBI would not comment on the fusion cell’s work in this case.)
“We weren’t getting the answers that we wanted as far as who took them or where they were. It was a big roundabout,” Amanda, Frost’s daughter, said. “They never would give us definitive answers on anything.”
Tammie told her daughters to set up 13 chairs in the basement for their FBI guests, so that they all faced her. She wanted the FBI agents to look her in the eye.
“I wanted them to look at me and tell me the answer I was looking for,” Tammie said. “When would my husband be coming home?”
The families of the hostages participated in a weekly phone call to share news.
They talked about being prepared. One of Obama’s reforms in 2015 allowed families to make ransom payments without fear of prosecution.
Now the families could decide if a ransom request came what they would do, without having to worry about spending time in jail.
“Anything I could possibly do to get my husband home, it wouldn’t matter if I went bankrupt tomorrow,” Tammie Frost thought. “That’s what I’d be willing to do.”
Brenda felt the same way. She also thought the families should consider the possibility of hiring mercenaries who could attempt a rescue.
As the men sat in their cells, they had a lot of time to think about what led to their capture.
It was strange that Marina, the translator they had tried to recruit, insisted on meeting in central Baghdad rather than at their base by the airport.
Marina wore a short-sleeve shirt in the middle of winter, when they picked him up. He looked disheveled and smelled horrible that day, even though he touted himself as a ladies’ man.
They had a good conversation over kebabs for lunch, but as they prepared to head back to base, Marina insisted the three of them have tea at his apartment.
Inside, rice and fish that Marina said he’d prepared were on top of the gas stove and looked cold, as if Marina had been interrupted while cooking.
Frost was left by himself for a few minutes, drinking juice and watching an English language TV channel, when two men and a woman burst in. They said they were Marina’s landlords, asking for rent money. Frost handed over a $100 bill.
Mohamed, who had intelligence training, recognized the trap. He got on the phone with the Iraqi general back at their base and shared their location and situation.
As Frost walked outside, one of the men bumped into him, slamming him into the wall. “What is this guy’s problem?” he thought.
El-Maadawy continued arguing their case. Frost looked around and then pulled out his gun, aware that for the first time he might need to use it, and cocked it.
Marina, the translator, was often put in the same room as Frost. But the more Frost thought about it, the more suspicious he became of Marina. Marina would ask Frost whether he had liked the eggs or the chicken that they had just eaten. But Frost would have been given only rice and gruel.
So Frost stopped speaking to Marina. A couple of the guards tried to speak to Frost in broken English, but Frost didn’t engage.
During their fourth week of captivity, the four of them were brought together into one room. One of the guards left and locked the door. Although they couldn’t see through their blindfolds, they could hear the breathing of another guard who had stayed to monitor them.
So they created a secret code: Whenever this happened, the four of them would insert the word “chicken” into their conversations, so they didn’t reveal anything that would get them in trouble. “What would you like to eat? Chicken?”
“You’re handling it like a man,” one of the FBI agents told Brenda, Mohamed’s wife.
But sometimes, she had to step away from her work managing nurses, away from patients at the hospital, to compose herself.
Before Mohamed had left on this most recent trip, Brenda asked him about getting professional pictures of them as a couple. “What, are you thinking I’m not going to come back?” Mohamed had teased her. She put their photo on the mantel.
She couldn’t talk to any of her co-workers about what was happening. So late at night when she couldn’t sleep, she stood in front of the mantel talking to Mohamed, whose head was leaning against her hijab, in the picture. She knew he would come home. If they had any chance of escaping, she said, it would depend on his training and experience. She loved him.
“I thought I was going crazy,” she said, “because I couldn’t talk about my thoughts and my fears with just anybody.”
After the fourth week, one of the guards told Mohamed they would be released soon.
They were shaved and showered and, except for Frost, put into new clothes. They couldn’t find clothes that fit him.
The next day they put the hostages in front of a camera in U.S. military knockoff uniforms. They were told to tell America to never return to Iraq and that the hostages owed their freedom to Sadr, the leader of the men who held them.
Then they were driven to the edge of a remote highway, where their blindfolds were removed and two government Suburbans picked them up. The security detail from the government hugged and kissed the men who had held the men captive. Why were their captors now being treated as friends? they thought.
A man in a suit introduced himself to Frost as an Iraqi senator. But Mohamed had been hit with the butt of his rifle in the other Suburban and told to keep his head down.
“Have we been sold to another militia?” El-Maadawy wondered.
A new day
On Feb. 16, a month after they were captured, Tammie was having a bad morning. She stomped around the house and yelled at the mirror in the bathroom. When she went to work at Goddard High School that morning, she didn’t smile or say hello.
“I was angry at everybody,” Tammie said. “I was angry at those who held him captive, at those who allowed him to be captive; I was angry at the FBI for not giving us any answers. I was angry at our government, because I didn’t feel like they were doing enough. I was just angry that my husband wasn’t where he was supposed to be.”
A little after the first bell rang, Tammie received another call from the FBI.
“Tammie, I have some news I want to share with you,” said Linda, an FBI agent, and Tammie’s heart stopped. “Your husband is coming home. He’s safe. He’s on his way to the embassy.”
After the hostages had been paraded in front of Iraqi government officials, U.S. soldiers showed up and verified all three of the hostages’ identities.
They were about to leave, but El-Maadawy refused. Marina had been taken to a separate room, he said, where Iraqi intelligence officials were holding him. “I’m not leaving without him, because he is going to be the key to our reputations,” he said. “And if you’re not going to go get him, I’m going to go get him myself.”
El-Maadawy hadn’t yet seen how their ordeal had been portrayed in the media, but they knew that hostages often faced questions or even criticism about their capture.
His instinct proved prescient: Several U.S. media outlets had quoted anonymous sources in the Iraqi government as claiming that the three hostages had been visiting a brothel and drinking whiskey before they were taken. And even as they were released, most news outlets misreported which country they came from and how to spell their names. One report claimed that Frost was an Egyptian woman.
They boarded U.S. vehicles, where one of the officers put an American flag on Frost’s lap, while Mohamed and El-Maadawy said they were told to sit in the cargo area.
For El-Maadawy, it was an indignity that, as a U.S. citizen, a veteran and a former police officer, his own countrymen still saw him primarily for his Egyptian birth.
Mohamed was more sanguine: Without knowing all the details of their capture, he understood why some low-level soldiers might be suspicious.
As they pulled into the U.S. Embassy, they could finally relax. After being evaluated by doctors, they were given ice cream cones.
A few days after Frost’s release, his daughter Madison was pulled out of class to talk to her dad on the phone. “Hi, Daddy, I love you,” she said.
Frost made a strange noise, she said, and then broke down, unable to say any words back. It was so good to just hear him breathe, she thought, as she handed the phone back to her mom.
A couple of days later, on Feb. 21, Tammie and the family waited for more than an hour at Wichita’s Eisenhower National Airport.
Tammie finally got a call from Frost: He was so tired, he’d fallen asleep in the Chicago airport and missed his flight. He couldn’t fly out until the next day.
There would be many doctor visits and sleepless nights in the months ahead. He would undergo two surgeries on damaged nerves and kidneys, but six months later, he still hasn’t received any compensation from their Defense Base Act insurance. And the government has still not clarified what led to their release.
It would be hard to go to restaurants, let alone watch his daughter lead cheers, because of the noise and chaos of the crowds. For a while, he would sleep excessively and lie on the floor during the day, in the corner, where he could see everyone.
After more than a decade away from home 50 weeks a year, he had to not only find his place in his family again but learn to live with post-traumatic stress disorder and, without being able to work, take care of his family as he had always done before. And learn to accept help.
But none of that was on his mind when Frost, the first one off the plane from Chicago, held his wife on the tarmac next to the jetway and said, “Let’s go home.”
When Frost got into the car, he looked like a stranger, Madison said. He’d lost weight and looked pale. The flesh near his wrists and ankles looked like hamburger meat.
But Frost was just so happy, he said, he hardly had any words: “I love you,” he said, as Madison put her hand on his shoulder.
“I love you, too,” Madison said, and they drove home.