Kidnapped: The Alan Johnston Story

With exclusive access to Alan Johnston, his family and the behind-the-scenes hostage negotiators, a Panorama special on BBC One tells the extraordinary story of the BBC correspondent’s 114 days held in captivity by the Army of Islam, a fanatical jihadist group in Gaza.

In a revealing interview with Jeremy Vine, Alan recalls the moments he feared he would be executed and explains how he composed himself in the face of death threats from his captors.

He tells of how his car was ambushed on the day of his kidnapping: “Very quickly he was alongside me pointing the gun through the door. I was vaguely aware of another gunman coming out of the other side of the kidnappers’ car and I knew immediately what was happening.”

When he was taken to a room in an apartment in Gaza: “The handcuffs were uncomfortably biting into my wrists and I felt I might ease that by-by sitting up, and it was this moment, I just had … an image of myself sitting there in that dingy room, handcuffed, a hood over my head and this profound feeling that I was at the lowest, lowest ebb of my life, in real danger, frightened.”

Of his kidnappers’ motives he says: “If you want to make jihad against Britain from Gaza, you have very few options. There’s no … large British diplomatic presence, there’s no British school, no British Airways, no British business. There’s just the BBC. And even in the BBC, there’s only one British citizen. It was me, and they had me.”

He adds: “I used to sometimes think rather bleakly that … of my place where I was being held, I used to think of it to myself as the Hotel Jihad and I used to think that all the dawns were false in the Hotel Jihad.”

During negotiations for his release, an email from the kidnappers said: “If we don’t get a positive message soon, we will end the negotiations and will send you a video of his slaughter. Then you will be negotiating not for him but for his body. We are serious. We have enough butchers to fill many refrigerators.”

The BBC reply read: “It is not necessary to threaten to harm Alan. We know that it is in your power to do this. But this will not help anyone to get what you want.”

Alan reveals how he was forced to film a propaganda video for the Army of Islam and why he was made to don an explosive belt before appearing in front of their cameras.

“He said rather chillingly that if I wanted my freedom I needed to cooperate, and I did, I was worried at that point, I thought I’m not gonna mess around with this video thing. I knew what they want, they want me to make a full statement of the jihadi world view. They hold all the cards. I tried to obstruct that process, but I, I need to cooperate now.”

“And Khamees said that it was being decided whether I would be put to death, maybe Friday, maybe before Friday, maybe afterwards. I asked him how it would be done. And he said it would be done in ‘the Zakawi way’.”

“I imagined being put into that red suit that they would make me wear for any video work. I imagined perhaps one of them in a hood, imagined one of them stepping up, imagined having a knee in my back or the back of my neck and then my throat being cut.”

During his captivity, a group claimed that Alan had been killed and this was widely reported. “And when I heard that, that I was said to have been executed, I just felt the air come out of my lungs, you know it was the most shocking thing I ever, perhaps will ever, hear in my life. And I just of course thought of how that would play for my parents.”

Alan describes how the kidnap reached a climax as the fighting intensified between Fatah and Hamas in the streets below the kidnappers hideout and how he was finally released, fearing he would be shot right up until the very moment of his dramatic handover.

This documentary also reveals the behind-the-scenes story of the hostage negotiators who corresponded by email with shadowy go-betweens to try and secure Alan’s release from a ruthless clan known as “the Sopranos” of Gaza.

Kidnapped: The Alan Johnston Story – a Panorama special, Thursday 25 October, 9pm, BBC One

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