Militants from the extremist group Islamic State captured freelance photojournalist Kamaran Najm on June 12, 2014, while he was covering clashes between the militants and the Kurdish Peshmarga in Mullah Abdullah, a village near Kirkuk, according to the journalist’s family and a colleague.
Najm founded Metrography, an Iraqi photo agency, with U.S. journalist Sebastian Meyer in 2009. His work has appeared in Der Spiegel, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, and The Washington Post, and he also did assignments for the U.N., his family and colleague said.
Najm’s brother, Ahmed, said that on the day of the kidnapping, he was traveling with his brother and Meyer when a Peshmarga commander called to tell Kamaran Najm about an explosion and clashes near Kirkuk. At the time, Islamic State fighting had intensified and the militants had taken Mosul. Kamaran Najm asked to be dropped off at Kirkuk, where he took a taxi to Mullah Abdullah so that he could cover the incident, his brother said.
Later that evening, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmarga Ministry announced that Kamaran Najm was killed by Islamic State sniper fire, Meyer told CPJ.
However, the following morning Kamaran Najm called a friend twice from a captor’s phone, Meyer and his brother told CPJ. In the first call, Kamaran Najm said he had been wounded in the neck and that the militants had taken him to the Islamic State stronghold of Hawija, the journalist’s brother and Meyer, who both listened to the call, told CPJ.
According to Meyer, the captors warned the family not to post news of his kidnapping to Facebook. Meyer said that the journalist’s family and co-workers took this as a signal to not publicly announce that he had been kidnapped.
Ahmed Najm told CPJ that his family tried to reason with the captors on the phone, saying that they were Sunni Muslims and that Kamaran Najm was not part of the military effort. Ahmed Najm said that the captors told the family they didn’t have a problem with Kamaran, but demanded that the Iraqi army and Peshmarga stop shooting before they returned him.
Ahmed Najm said that after the second phone call, the brothers traveled to the front line in Mullah Abdullah to tell the Peshmarga commander about the calls. While there, the captors called again and demanded to speak with the commander.
The commander at first refused, but after the captors threatened to kill Kamaran Najm, he agreed to take the call. The commander told the captors that Kamaran Najm was a well-known international photojournalist and that if they killed him, his forces would retaliate by destroying Hawija, an Iraqi city then held by Islamic State, before hanging up, Ahmed Najm said.
Ahmed Najm told CPJ in November 2017 that the family has tried calling the captor’s number repeatedly since his brother went missing, but the line is dead. "It’s like water went down into the ground," Ahmed Najm said. "No one knows what happened to him."
Meyer confirmed with CPJ that the third phone call was the last known communication with Najm’s captors.
Kamaran Najm’s coworkers, family and friends decided to make details of his disappearance public in November 2017 because Islamic State had been nearly defeated in Iraq. Meyer said the family no longer saw any benefit in keeping his kidnapping secret.
Sarhad Qader Mohammad, Brigadier General of the Kirkuk police, told CPJ in February 2019 that about seven months after the disappearance, police arrested a man whom them suspected to be the Islamic State militant who abducted the photojournalist and called his friend. During questioning, the militant, whom Qader Mohammad did not identify, said that Kamaran Najm had recovered from his wounds in Hawija, a city 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Kirkuk, and joined Islamic State.
“I have arrested many IS fighters in recent years and have questioned all of them about Kamaran Najm. They all replied he is alive, he was treated of his wounds in Hawija, and eventually taken to Mosul,” Qader Mohammad said. “IS said that Najm was alive and not dead and that he had been taken to Mosul. There are two opinions about Najm: either he was killed by ISIS because he was embedded with coalition forces or he is alive and working for ISIS.”
In a two-part podcast broadcast by NPR on June 12 and June 19, 2019, Ahmed Najm and Sebastian Meyer detailed their efforts to find Kamaran.
In the second part of the podcast, Ahmed Najm said that over a year after the abduction, he met the intelligence adviser to the Kurdish prime minister and asked him to listen to the conversation with the militant that he had recorded a day after his brother’s abduction. After playing the recording several times, the adviser said he recognized the voice and that the person used to belong to an organized crime ring. The name of the person wasn’t mentioned in the podcast.
Five years after his abduction, Kamaran Najm’s older brother, Najat, said he is convinced his sibling is still alive and is searching for him, whereas Kamaran’s younger brother Ahmed and Meyer have started to look for his body, the podcast said.