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Conversation with Former Hostage Charles Glass

Oct 6, 2017 | 00:00 GMT
An aerial view of modern downtown Beirut.
An aerial view of downtown Beirut, Lebanon prominently showing the Mohammed al-Amin mosque.
(JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Back in 1987, journalist Charles Glass was held hostage in Lebanon for 62 days. After he escaped, Stratfor’s Fred Burton, then an agent with the US State Department was among those there to help. 30-years later, Burton sits down with Glass, now a Stratfor Worldview contributor, to discuss that experience. Then in part two of the podcast, Stratfor senior analysts discuss the geopolitical significance of maritime chokepoints.

Related Reading

Charles Glass' book Syria Burning: A Short History of Catastrophe

Chokepoints: Global Trade, Security and Contingencies, a Stratfor Worldview webcast

The Geopolitics of Martime Chokepoints

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Transcript

Faisel Pervaiz [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Faisel Pervaiz, a South Asia analyst here at Stratfor, and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor Worldview, our premier digital publication for objective geopolitical intelligence and analysis. Individual, team, and enterprise memberships are available at worldview.stratfor.com.

Charles Glass [00:00:31] Five men jumped out of each car with Kalashnikovs, shouting at everyone on the street to get out of the way, and then they grabbed us. I tried to run away and to resist, but they got me and clubbed me a bit with rifle butts to get me into the car.

Ben Sheen [00:00:51] Welcome to the Stratfor Podcast, focused on geopolitics and world affairs from stratfor.com. I'm Ben Sheen, and that was a short preview of our conversation with renowned journalist and former hostage Charles Glass, who's now also a Stratfor contributor. Back in 1987, he was kidnapped while on assignment in Beirut and spent 62 days in captivity. After he managed to escape and reach safety, Stratfor Chief Security Officer Fred Burton, then an agent with the U.S. State Department, was among those there to help. Three decades later, they discussed the kidnapping, his escape, and how Lebanon has changed. In part two of the podcast, we'll share part of a recent webcast conversation with a team of senior Stratfor analysts on the geopolitical significance of maritime choke points. Thank you for joining us.

Fred Burton [00:01:41] I'm here today with Charles Glass, author, journalist, and publisher. Charlie, you and I go back, as I was looking, almost 30 years now. It has been that long. And I think the fascinating aspect is I was a special agent at the time and you were a journalist that was kidnapped in Beirut. When you look back in that time frame, and I know you were kidnapped with the son of the Lebanese defense minister, if memory serves me correct, is that right?

Charles Glass [00:02:13] That's Ali Osseiran.

Fred Burton [00:02:15] Do you recall, Charlie, any evidence of you being surveilled before the actual kidnapping?

Charles Glass [00:02:22] Before I was taken, I wasn't aware of any surveillance. I discovered later when I got out that I was under pretty close watch and that the Hezbollah operatives who were watching me had sent cables to Tehran, to the responsibles in Tehran, asking whether or not they should pick me up, and the message came back to the Iranian embassy in Damascus to tell Hezbollah indeed to pick me up.

Fred Burton [00:02:50] That's fascinating, with that direct smoking gun with the Iranians. When you were picked up that day, what was running through your mind at the time of the abduction?

Charles Glass [00:03:01] Well, just before, I was coming up from South Lebanon where I's been staying with my friend Ali Osseiran, his father was, as you said, the defense minister, and I wasn't apprehensive at all. I thought I was safe because he's from a very prominent Shiite family that we all thought would be untouchable, and I was going to go and have dinner with the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, and then leave and go to Syria and continue a trip that I was making through the Middle East. So I was actually rather self-confident that I'd had a few weeks in Lebanon, nothing had gone wrong, and everything would be fine. But as we were driving into Beirut itself through what are called the southern suburbs, which are areas of, then, of slums of the South Lebanese Shiites who had moved into Beirut, fleeing the regular Israeli bombardment of their towns and villages from the 1970s onward, and it's an area teeming with poverty and all the political problems that Lebanon represent as well as a breeding ground for Hezbollah militants. As we were coming into that area, an area called Ouzai along the seafront, a green Mercedes pulled in front of us, and I noticed that the car didn't have any license plates and that there was a black curtain over the back window so we couldn't see who was inside. And I made a joke about the not having the license plates, obviously, it was a stolen car, but the joke fell a little bit flat because a couple of seconds later, the car veered sharply to the right, blocking our car, and then another Mercedes behind us

Charles Glass [00:04:39] did exactly the same thing, so the driver, who was a Lebanese policeman, couldn't go forward or backward. Five men jumped out of each car with Kalashnikovs shouting at everyone in the street, because the street was crowded with people, to get out of the way, and then they grabbed us. I tried to run away and to resist, but they got me and clubbed me a bit with rifle butts to get me into the car.

Fred Burton [00:05:06] Charlie, I remember talking to you, as part of the debriefing team in Germany after you had escaped, which is, in itself, was an amazing feat, as I understand it, Hezbollah had held you captive for approximately three months, then you were able to escape?

Charles Glass [00:05:27] It was 62 days exactly, and it was 30 years ago now. It was from June to August of 1987, and it's now 2017.

Fred Burton [00:05:37] And when you escaped, Charlie, you were on the 10th floor of an apartment, if memory serves me correctly. Is that right?

Charles Glass [00:05:44] It was in ninth or 10th, yes.

Fred Burton [00:05:46] And how did you cope during that time in captivity? Were you always planning on trying to escape, or what were your thoughts running through your mind as you reflect back on that time frame?

Charles Glass [00:06:00] In retrospect, I realized that I was lucky that I was held alone and very rarely was I allowed anything to read, so I had time on my hands, and I was able to use that time to concentrate on any way to escape. There was no obvious way to escape, but I did everything I could to make it possible. I used to put notes through the bathroom window. There was a fan, not really a window, but a fan. Whenever the fan was off, they let me into the bathroom, I would push notes out the window in English, French, and Arabic offering people a reward if they would call certain phone numbers of friends of mine to say where I was. I think the only thing that really kept me going was this idea that I might be able to get myself out. I was also hoping that someone would rescue me, but that didn't happen.

Fred Burton [00:06:48] I know, quite frankly, we had general intelligence of where you might have been held at the time, and of course, we already had our hands full with other hostages that had been kidnapped, Westerners, Americans, and of course, the hunt for Bill Buckley, the CIA station chief, which is really what drove a lot of our efforts early on during the hostage dilemma. When you escaped, Charlie, I recall you telling me that you were able to flag down a taxi, and then you went to a hotel, and you very much wanted to get, I believe it was the Syrians, to go back and arrest the captors. Was that correct?

Charles Glass [00:07:37] What I wanted to do was to get to the airport and fly to London direct from Beirut. But when I got to the hotel, the security chief of the hotel was afraid that Hezbollah would know where I was and come back and raid the hotel and take me away, so he informed the Syrian Army where I was, and they came and took control of me, and they then used that politically to say that they had in fact helped in my escape, which they hadn't. But I didn't really care because I was out. That's all I cared about. And the Syrians dragged me off to Damascus instead of letting me fly from Beirut and did a photo op with the Syrian foreign minister and so forth to claim some credit for having helped an American to get out.

Fred Burton [00:08:19] Sure, I recall that. Charlie, I know if you wind back the clock about a year before your abduction during the hijacking of TWA 847, you were the journalist on the ground there in Beirut at the time. Do you think, in retrospect, that any of the hijackers or Hezbollah members that were involved in that hijacking were actually engaged in your kidnapping?

Charles Glass [00:08:46] It's not inconceivable because I assume that the kidnapping unit at Hezbollah was a very compact group who knew one another, and a lot of Hezbollah members would not be in the loop on the kidnapping operation because it was a highly secret operation. And to this day, they deny that they had anything to do with the kidnapping. It's probably likely, but I would have no evidence. I don't know who the individuals were who took me or indeed who the individuals were who hijacked that airplane.

Fred Burton [00:09:15] I know we had several infamous characters that were involved in the hijacking, such as Ali Atwa and Hassan Izz-Al-Din. They certainly, at least Izz-Al-Din, we suspected, was involved in some of the Western hostage takings.

Charles Glass [00:09:31] Well, the other name that is also mentioned is Imad Mugniyah, who was, apparently, one of the architects of the kidnapping policy going back to 1982, when they kidnapped the president of the American University, David Dodge, who was the first American to be taken. But as you know, Mugniyah was subsequently assassinated in Damascus probably by the Israelis.

Fred Burton [00:09:55] Yes, indeed, his fingerprints were under, were on a tremendous amount of terrorist attacks and killings and bombings and hijackings and hostage taking, so that certainly doesn't surprise, I think, either you or I. In retrospect, Charlie, looking at Lebanon in that time frame, do you think that the country, in many ways, has changed from that time period? I know you were recently back visiting and traveling. What's your perceptions as you drive down the streets of Beirut and thinking back in the '80s?

Charles Glass [00:10:38] It's the difference of day and night. Lebanon is safe. I can walk anywhere on the streets day or night without any fear. Hezbollah has re-branded itself as a legitimate political party that on the side has a militia ostensibly to protect South Lebanon from Israeli attacks and to assist the Syrian regime in its war against the jihadists in Syria. The nightlife scene in Lebanon is like it was before the war. Business is good. Tourists are coming. Right now, there is a huge international music festival at Baalbek. Baalbek used to be called the capital of world terror in the days when Abu Nidal was there. And now, it's changed enormously. There is, however, a threat that Lebanon could revert. If the Lebanese Army should be weakened, if the ISIS militants from Syria would escape into Lebanon and foment problems between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon, things could go wrong. But at the moment, the Lebanese Army has taken control of all the border area. Hezbollah has turned over its bases to the Lebanese Army, and unfortunately, the U.S., which was largely behind this program of beefing up the Lebanese Army, is about to cut that foreign aid budget to Lebanon, which may make that order more porous and thus make Lebanon slightly vulnerable.

Fred Burton [00:12:05] That's a fascinating look, Charlie. I appreciate you sharing that with me. Now you have a new book out, Syria Burning: A Short History of Catastrophe. What's that about?

Charles Glass [00:12:16] Well, I've been going about twice a year into Syria since the war began in 2011 for the New York Review of Books and taking long looks at different parts of Syria and different people in Syria, so I've taken all of that information and the impressions that I gathered and put it into the book to try and explain it's simply, it's a very short book, it's almost like a handbook to people who are not familiar with Syria, what happened there and why there was a war and why the war is still going on and the foreign powers that are involved who are enabling both sides to be armed well enough to prolong a war that most Syrians don't want to take place.

Fred Burton [00:12:59] And if people are interested in getting the book, I assume they can visit your website, www.charlesglass.net, or is it also available on Amazon, for example?

Charles Glass [00:13:10] It's now available on Amazon and some good book shops. It's from Verso Press. It's not very expensive, but it's quite a... In a few hours, you'll have a pretty good idea of what's going on in Syria.

Fred Burton [00:13:21] In closing, Charlie, I'd like...

Charles Glass [00:13:23] Before you close, I just want to say something. A lot of people during those days when I was hostaged and a lot of other Americans and British and French citizens were hostaged, there were complaints that the government bureaucracies didn't care. I don't know whether the bureaucracy cared or not about me, but I know when I came out and met you and your colleagues, I know how supportive you were to my family while I was away and they didn't know if I was going to come back alive and how supportive you were to me personally and psychologically and so forth, so I think you State Department guys deserve a pat on the back for all the help you gave us at that time. And as you know, I'm not uncritical of American foreign policy. However, you guys were great. I don't think you could have done anything more than what you did.

Fred Burton [00:14:17] Well, Charlie, I very much appreciate those very kind words. I know that we certainly tried to locate you, and unfortunately, we just did not have the human intelligence or the tactical intelligence to be able to figure out where any of the hostages were on any given day, but we certainly tried. So thank you very much for those kind words, and I appreciate you taking the time to visit with us today. And again, if anybody would like to get a copy of Charlie's book, Syria Burning: A Short History of Catastrophe, it's available at all the usual outlets, and you can also find it on Charlie's website, www.charlesglass.net. Thank you, Charlie.

Charles Glass [00:15:09] Thank you very much, Fred.

Ben Sheen [00:15:19] As Fred Burton mentioned, you can learn more about Charles Glass' new book, Syria Burning: A Short History of Catastrophe at charlesglass.net. We'll include a link in the show notes, along with links to his recent contributions to Stratfor Worldview. Glass is among a group of regular contributors who share their unique insights into world affairs in the website's Global Perspectives section. If you're not already a Worldview member, you can get access to all our latest assessments, perspectives, and other analyses by subscribing to worldview.stratfor.com. Individual, team, and enterprise memberships are also available. For the second part of the podcast, we'll hear an excerpt from a discussion with Stratfor Vice President of Global Analysis Reva Goujon and Senior Analysts Rebecca Keller, Evan Rees, and Sim Tack, and they'll be talking about the geopolitical significance of maritime choke points. This conversation was part of an hour-long live webcast about choke points, which is also the topic of a recent long-form Stratfor Store report. We'll include links to both the full webcast and the report in the show notes. We hope you enjoy.

Stratfor [00:16:31] As many of you know who have been following Stratfor for some time, we spend a lot of time studying the map and specifically how physical geography can affect state behavior. Now the study of choke points is a perfect illustration of geopolitics and a historical and contemporary battle between land and sea powers with significant implications for our global business and security. We're going to dive right in with our guests, and I'm going to start with Rebecca and looking at the big picture, when it comes to the global container shipping industry, which has struggled quite a bit since the global financial crisis in 2008. We saw a lot of shipping companies getting a bit overzealous in their expansion plans prior to the crisis hitting and still struggling to this day. Becca, what does that picture look like overall?

Rebecca [00:17:25] The boom and bust cycle is no new thing to global shipping, but since 2008, we have seen it an extremely difficult recovery. Several broader global geopolitical trends that we follow are factoring in here. You've got China's restructuring, you've got the weakening European demand, and you've got the fourth industrial revolution all changing global trade patterns. And we're still seeing the shipping industries, specifically the container shipping industry, struggle to come out of that, and it really all comes down to a supply and demand imbalance. There is an overcapacity problem in the container shipping industry, and that overcapacity is projected to continue.

Stratfor [00:18:07] Becca, as we've seen that supply glut really exacerbating the condition for a lot of these shipping companies, what has been the survival strategy from those companies?

Rebecca [00:18:17] We've seen many, in fact, the majority of container shipping industries move towards an alliance structure. In fact, what once was a four-alliance system recently, in April, switched to a three-alliance system that covers nearly all of East-West trade and 77% of the total global container capacity. And that alliance structure allows the shipping industry to better utilize the larger ships which are a large part of this overcapacity problem, is the increasing ship size that we have seen over the course of the past decade. That alliance structure, however, is going to mean that there are now new winners and losers when it comes to ports of call. Specifically, I've seen reports that ports in Malaysia are set to lose traffic due to the new alliance structure while ports in Singapore are set to gain. Vietnam and Thailand I've also seen as potential winners in the new alliance structure. And I'm focusing on the Southeast Asia trade for a particular reason, and that's because that's where we're actually seeing most of the growth. Quarter one, in Q1 of 2017, we saw a sort of a bright light for the shipping industry where 10% growth was reported in the preliminary numbers. But that growth was primarily from intra-Asian trade and specifically from Chinese demand.

Stratfor [00:19:38] That is where we're seeing a great deal of commercial activity, in that Asia-Pacific theater, so why don't we zoom into that theater itself? And of course really, the big player here that we're looking at is China and as China's economic re-balancing is of course influencing shipping patterns, but let's pull back for a second, and Evan, I want to bring you in, in looking at China's geopolitical imperatives always revolving heavily around guarding itself against naval interdiction. When you're looking at the key choke points in this region, how is that influencing China's strategy, and what is China actually doing to insulate itself overall?

Evan [00:20:18] When we look at the Asia-Pacific, we're actually looking at an interconnected network of choke points running from the Malacca Strait all the way up past Indonesia, Taiwan, up to Russia. And China sees this as its first island chain. It sees it as part of the U.S. potential to contain China's growth and potentially cause damage to China in the decades to come. China, for a long time, was a very inwardly-turned power, going back into the ancient times, but in the last few decades, it started to move outwards, and suddenly, it's abjectly reliant on inputs, especially from the Middle East, and exports to the West. So it's very vulnerable to interdiction.

Stratfor [00:20:59] And so when we look at China trying to break out of this island chain, Evan, and when we're looking specifically at the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea dynamics, how has things like the One Belt One Road strategy really played in to China's strategy overall?

Evan [00:21:16] China's major strategy now is the Belt and Road Initiative. Belt and Road involves dozens of countries to increase connectivity across their Asian land mass and by sea. So what China wants to do is it wants to, one, diversify its land root so it's not completely reliant on the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea, and potential interdictions by sea. So this involves pipeline through Myanmar, for example. It also involves road and rail projects through Central Asia, major connectivity through Pakistan, that's where we've seen a lot of progress. Another part of the Belt and Road strategy though, and this is probably the core of Belt and Road, is the maritime strategy, which involves China investing in port projects across the region to try to transform the interest of local countries and potentially years down the road station naval forces there. But we're still quite a long ways away from that. A big part of that are there's two ports that they're working on in Malaysia right now on the east and west coast, and there is going to be a rail line that runs between the two of them, which China hopes will give it some leeway to diversify beyond Malacca.

Stratfor [00:22:23] And so we see China trying to build redundancy through One Belt One Road. Obviously, these are very aspirational projects to a large degree, and a lot of these are very, very long term but still fit into that geopolitical imperative that China has. Of course, there is a lot of attention that goes toward the South China Sea in particular and the potential for maritime conflict there that could lead to some more serious global economic issues. And so Sim, I'd like to bring you in from Belgium. As you're looking at this from the military perspective and we're looking at South China Sea dynamics and the potential for military conflict, how do you read the situation?

Sim [00:23:06] Well, I think one of the big things to keep in mind here is that as we're looking at China, we hear a lot of discussion about how China is developing its naval capabilities. A big thing to keep in mind, however, is that there is a difference between the capabilities that China is still building towards power projection beyond that first island chain, as Evan mentioned, and the capabilities that China actually has closer to home. It's near sea defense. And when it comes to that area within the first island chain containing as well the South China Sea, China really has a lot of tools to use here. They've got a very layered capability consisting of submarines, vast missile vessels, and of course, land-based anti-ship missiles that it can use against any foreign navy trying to really encroach on China's turf, so to speak. Now when it comes to the risk of conflict, however, a lot of countries have a lot to lose here if they were to actually engage China in a conventional naval warfare scenario. Basically, all of the trade between these different countries, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, all these countries have their own stake in the South China Sea, but they also depend on trade with China. And then in addition to that, of course, the United States itself, they also depend for a great deal on trade with China. In a way, the cost of waging war probably outweighs the real objectives within that limited theater. It has to be said though that in addition to that, we can't rule out limited skirmishes breaking out, particularly when it comes to activity

Sim [00:24:47] by the coast guards of these navies. When all of the fishing vessels that are active in this region come into conflict with each other, there is always a potential for things to escalate and to actually unwittingly lead to some kind of conflict.

Ben Sheen [00:25:13] And that's it for this episode of the Stratfor Podcast. If you'd like to hear the full hour-long webcast discussion on maritime choke points, we'll include a link in the show notes. You'll also find details about journalist, former hostage, and Worldview contributor Charles Glass's new book, Syria Burning. If you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, be sure to visit us at worldview.stratfor.com to learn more about individual, team, and enterprise-level access. You can even contribute to the conversation by sharing your insights in Worldview's Forums section. That's where you can engage with other readers as well as Stratfor analysts, editors, and contributors on the latest developments. Have a comment or an idea for a future episode of the podcast? Email us at [email protected] or give us a call on 1-512-744-4300 extension 3917 to leave a message. If you have a moment, also consider leaving us a review on iTunes or wherever you subscribe to the podcast. We really appreciate your feedback. And for more geopolitical intelligence, analysis, and forecasting that brings global events into valuable perspective, follow us on Twitter @Stratfor. Thanks for listening.

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