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Mother and daughter, a world apart

Maureen Dabbagh had to go outside the system to save her kidnapped child
Monday, August 7, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:05 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

[photo]

This family portrait of Hisham, Maureen and Nadia Dabbagh, from left, was taken in Medina, Ohio, in 1992. At the time the photo was taken, Nadia was two years old. (Photo courtesy of MAUREEN DABBAGH)

The man in the tailored suit looked to be in his 70s. He had crisp, dark hair, a refined nose and blue eyes, sharp and blank at the same time. It was a face of effortless composure, a face that would know how to hide a secret.

The hand he extended had five perfectly manicured nails.

“Mitch Rogovin.”

“Maureen Dabbagh.”

“Come in,” the man said. He had supple, pale skin, the kind that comes from too many years under fluorescent lights. “A pleasure to meet you.”

The room was large and rectangular, colorless and cold, with a desk that nobody seemed to use. There were no notes taped to a phone, no business cards in a Rolodex, no legal folders in a pile. The trash bin beside it held nothing but air.

On the far side of the room was also a conference table. Around it sat three men. They had broad shoulders, thick necks, tightly cropped hair. One had a graying ponytail.

Rogovin said, “These boys used to be Special Forces.”

One, he said, was a Navy Seal, another an Army Ranger, the third a Green Beret. “They’re retired,” he added, smiling, “on paper.”

Maureen reached for her shoulder bag, to pull out the paperwork on her kidnapped daughter, Nadia. Rogovin stopped her. “No need,” he said, “I’ve got your file.”

When he’d called Maureen out of the blue, Rogovin had introduced himself as a lawyer. Evidently, she thought, this guy is no ordinary lawyer. How did he get a file on my kid?

“Now,” Rogovin said, “there’s something I want to show you.”

On the wall behind him ran a row of plaques, “CIA” and “Mitchell Rogovin” engraved on each. On another wall hung a row of framed photographs. The first showed Rogovin, much younger, shaking hands with President Kennedy. In the others, he stood alongside Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush.

To a third wall was pinned a single Polaroid. Rogovin plucked the snapshot and held it up, as though it were a trophy.

“This is Colleen Piper,” he said. “The little girl in the photo is her daughter, Jasmine. When she was 6, Jasmine was kidnapped and taken to Syria — Damascus. These guys recovered her.”

He handed her the Polaroid.

“We’re going to do the same for you,” he said. “We’re going to get your daughter back.”

If there are junctures in life when an individual’s destiny is radically transformed, this was undoubtedly Maureen Richardson Dabbagh’s moment.

For most of her 34 years, her life had been typical: She’d been educated in a small town, married, had three children, divorced; she’d worked as an EMT and seamstress, never more than a paycheck away from poverty.

Then it all changed. A rare nerve disease she contracted caused such paralysis she could no longer care for her children and gave up custody to her ex-husband. In this vulnerable state, she met a technician at the hospital where she was being treated, a Syrian named Hisham Dabbagh. They married shortly after her release, but that union also ended unhappily a few years later. Bitter divorce proceedings led to temporary, alternating custody of their 2½-year-old daughter, Nadia — 30 days at a time for each parent.

During one visitation, Hisham vanished with Nadia — and most likely spirited her overseas.

Now Maureen was about to step into a universe she had no idea existed: a shadowy subculture known as the “snatchback industry,” in which former military commandos, spies and bounty hunters are hired to recover parentally abducted children from hostile, foreign countries.

She eyed Rogovin over.

“I don’t have any money.”

“This isn’t going to cost you anything.”

Careful, Maureen, she thought. You’ve been lied to by the best — judges, cops, lawyers. And now this — a freebie from a spook lawyer and the Rambo triplets.

Then again, what did she have to lose? Nadia had vanished from West Palm Beach, Fla., on Feb. 12, 1993. It was now January 1994, and the State Department, FBI, Florida police and Interpol had done nothing to find her.

“All right.”

Out of nowhere, a grandfatherly man with perfect, platinum hair and wire-rimmed spectacles appeared. Easing into a chair, he smiled mischievously, leaned over, and said with mock politeness:

“I’m not here.”

Rogovin then introduced the gentleman as Bill Colby — the former director of the CIA.

A big decision to make

This is a tale of hate and love, revenge and courage — of a Cherokee preacher’s daughter from the pine country of Florida whose quest to recover her kidnapped daughter transformed her from a sensitive, charitable woman into a gun-toting warrior.

It is also, however, an epic, international saga that unveils the volatile, secret world of the child recovery industry: a big-money business in which the interests of desperate parents, mercenaries and governments dovetail and collide.

In this world, smugglers, guerrillas, even members of terrorist groups would become allies, and men of law would turn their backs on her, leaving Maureen to push on, alone.

This account is, in large part, Maureen’s version of events. Much of it is supported by other interviews and hundreds of documents, including court papers, immigration records, cables from Interpol, the State Department, the FBI, and other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

It cannot all be corroborated; portions of many documents have been blacked out, and others classified on grounds of national security. As a matter of policy, the government does not disclose details on cases of international child abduction. The State Department declined multiple requests to present its side, and would only discuss snatchbacks in general terms and anonymously.

Although Maureen Dabbagh shared her story exclusively with an Associated Press reporter, she would not discuss some things she did or some aspects of the snatchback world, for fear of compromising active agents or violating the privacy of parents who turned to them out of desperation.

For 12 more years, Maureen would struggle to get back her daughter, exhausting every legal and diplomatic channel open to her. Whenever she turned to officials in the United States or the Middle East, she got excuses, delays, empty promises, indifference.

In many ways, her experience is typical of thousands of “left-behinds” — parents whose children have been kidnapped by estranged spouses and taken abroad in violation of U.S. court orders. Since 1977, the government has opened files on more than 16,000 cases of international child abduction. In most cases, the children are lost for good.

When Hisham kidnapped their daughter and authorities were slow to respond, Maureen had two choices: let go of her child forever, or attempt a snatchback.

Hiring a recovery agent would be costly — anywhere between $50,000 to $150,000 per attempt — and there was no guarantee of success. Recovery agents have ended up in foreign prisons, and parents and agents were known to have died in failed recoveries.

Ultimately, Maureen didn’t hire an agent.

She became one herself.

The fear of a threat

“MOMMA!”

“Hello?”

“MOMMA! MOMMA!”

Maureen’s heart seized: it was Christmas Day, 1992, and this was the first phone contact she’d had with her daughter in weeks.

“Nadia?”

“I WANT TO HOLD YOU!”

The child had been sent to her father’s home in Florida on Nov. 3, 1992, for a court-ordered, 30-day visit, according to Medina County court records. But then seven weeks passed with no Nadia, and Maureen grew sick with worry, unable to eat, sleep, work, or return calls from family.

She wanted to reassure Nadia that soon she would be back home in Ohio, in her mother’s arms ...

“I love you!”

“I WANT TO HOLD YOU! I WANT TO HOLD — “

The line went dead.

Earlier that year, after an Ohio judge had granted Maureen a divorce, Hisham told her repeatedly that if ever he got a chance to see Nadia he would never give her up — even if that meant taking her far away from America forever.

That, she knew, was no idle threat. Once, Hisham had confided to her that members of his family belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, a rigidly conservative, often secretive organization spread across the Arab world. The group has espoused nonviolence, but it also has been linked to bloodletting — Hamas is the Palestinian arm of the Brotherhood.

Now, as she slumped to the floor, her hand still clutching the receiver, the weight of Hisham’s threats came crashing down upon her.

Affirmed suspicions

The visitation order violated, Maureen’s lawyer petitioned Medina County court for an emergency hearing.

January came and went, however, with no hearing. Hisham told the court he wouldn’t be able to appear in Ohio that month, and the hearing was postponed until February, court papers show.

All this time, Nadia stayed at her father’s house in West Palm Beach. With the custody dispute unresolved, authorities in both Ohio and Florida wouldn’t intervene on Maureen’s behalf, regardless of her pleas.

She also called Hisham’s apartment and Palm Beach Regional, where he worked as a lab technician. On Feb. 17, 1993, two weeks after Nadia’s third birthday, she phoned the hospital, and was told that Hisham hadn’t shown that week.

Calling Hisham’s home, she got no answer.

She then telephoned the apartment complex where Hisham lived. No, the manager told her, she hadn’t seen Hisham lately. And he was behind on the rent. In a panic, Maureen called the sheriff’s office.

As it happened, she was already too late.

Hisham’s car had been found inside the long-term parking of the Palm Beach International Airport. According to the ticket on the dash, it had been there since Feb. 12.

Wherever he’d taken Nadia, Hisham had a big head start.

Detective dead ends

At the time of Nadia’s abduction, Hisham couldn’t be charged with international child kidnapping; there was no such law on the books in America.

On Dec. 2, 1993, the U.S. Congress passed a law that made international child kidnapping by parents a felony. Florida authorities didn’t act, though, because the Ohio court had not settled the Dabbaghs custody dispute. (Not until October 1994 did the Medina County judge grant Maureen full custody of her daughter.)

Finally, on Nov. 16, 1994 — 21 months after Nadia’s kidnapping — a federal prosecutor in Florida issued a warrant for Hisham’s arrest, and only after Rogovin pulled strings.

It took months for authorities to alert Interpol, which subsequently asked immigration officials in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait whether Hisham and Nadia had entered those countries, and how.

Saudi Arabia responded affirmatively. Jim Prietsch, a special agent for Interpol in Washington, D.C., called Maureen. They’ve found my baby, she thought. It’s almost over ...

“Maureen?”

She stiffened.

“Yes?”

Prietsch sighed. “We don’t have an extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia. Even if we did, it would only allow us to ask the Saudis to return a criminal, a fugitive. Nadia is neither.”

Besides, her exact whereabouts were still unknown.

Loopholes and laws

By Nadia’s 5th birthday, Feb. 3, 1995, Maureen was living near her brother in Virginia Beach, Va., working at a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, and pushing the FBI, Interpol and the State Department to find Nadia.

Rogovin, for his part, had arranged legal counsel for Maureen in Syria — a Lebanese native, Mounir Al-Amoudi, who had worked on the case of Colleen Piper’s abducted daughter, Jasmine.

Amoudi filed a custody claim on Maureen’s behalf with the Islamic court of Damascus, then pulled strings to have a warrant issued for Hisham’s arrest in Syria, on the charge of kidnapping. (Hisham had failed to register Nadia as his daughter in Damascus, meaning that he was not lawfully her father under Syrian law.)

Now they needed to find a way to lure Hisham to Syria.

Back in Virginia, Maureen drafted a presentation for the United Nations on international parental kidnapping. She founded PARENT, a worldwide network for left-behinds whose children had been kidnapped by ex-spouses. She gave interviews to journalists from around the world, and eventually, more than 500 Web sites carried her story.

None of this made her a favorite at the State Department’s Office for Children’s Issues; one memo-writer called her a “would-be do-gooder.” Maureen knew that the bureaucrats weren’t acting aggressively on her case.

Which only fed her anger.

Moving to the front lines

Rogovin and Colby, she later realized, must have sensed that anger — that Maureen was a woman with nothing to lose; that all she needed was a nudge in the right direction.

That nudge came with her first job — a support role in the recovery of two Louisiana teenagers who’d been kidnapped by their Syrian father and whisked off to Damascus.

The American mother had gone to Damascus, located her son and daughter, and fled with them by bus into the interior. Still, the kids had no passports and the authorities had locked down all borders. (A week earlier, a French team had snatched a child from Syria, and the government had heightened security.)

While Rogovin dispatched a team to Syria, Maureen instructed the mother by phone how to stay hidden, how to get travel papers for her kids, how to rendezvous with the recovery team.

She didn’t leave Virginia, but once it was over Maureen felt a surge of hope that Nadia might be rescued the same way.

At that point, she began prepping for field work.

Maureen learned how to slip across borders undetected. She learned to make it appear as though she were in several places at once. She trained to use knives, automatic weapons, and “improvised devices.” (Beyond the barest details, Maureen would say no more.)

She learned how to mine data from computers, plant misinformation, send classified transmissions. She became acquainted with night-vision goggles, TASER devices and GPS tracking technology.

Recovering kidnapped American children from North Africa and the Middle East was dangerous; there were no laws or oversight. Some agents had no compunction using extreme violence. Many just took money from left-behinds, with no intention of attempting a recovery.

Maureen wouldn’t let any of this faze her; her own daughter would one day be the target.

On that day, she would need to be strong.


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