The dichotomy between the New Zealand government and the International Red Cross over NZ/Cook Islands nurse Louisa Akavi should be seen in terms of the conflict between “need to know” on the part of the IRC and the government’s determination to seek her release.
On one hand, the IRC felt it had reached an impasse, exhausted its resources and believed releasing her name might flush out information on whether she was still in captivity – or possibly died from various causes.
On the other hand, the government here believed there was still time to press ahead with inquiries. In this respect, NZ’s membership of the oft-criticised “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing arrangements, has been critically important.
Without it, NZ would have been blind. NZ intelligence officers backed by Arab-speaking SAS troopers have been on the ground in Iraq and probably Syria, probing into camps and refugee holding areas.
They have shared information with US, British and Iraqi counterparts on Akavi’s possible whereabouts.
NZ’s limited resources are valued by our counterparts. NZ officers have been exposed to extreme risks on behalf of a NZ civilian.
Akavi had survived more than five years as a hostage of the Islamic State. A one-time prisoner of its brutal executioner Jihadi John, she was there as many of her cellmates were led away and summarily executed to fuel Isis’ grisly propaganda war.
Later, intelligence reports placed her at a hospital in Raqqa, Isis’ self proclaimed caliphate and even later, after the city fell, on the move with Isis as its soldiers retreated into Syria’s Euphrates Valley.
But her ordeal was a closely held secret – one kept by successive prime ministers, our intelligence and defence agencies, consular officials, and media, for fear that any news might bring forward her execution.
The NZ side has been anxious to limit her risk by focusing on her Cook Islands antecedents, mindful that her ISIL captors would measure her surrender value accordingly knowing she, and NZ, was part of the Five Eyes network.
We understand there have been months of continuing contact among international security and intelligence forces, between Wellington and Washington, London and the IRC through the NZ Mission in Geneva.
Relations with the IRC have been tense at times, although the Red Cross points out that two if its Syrian workers were captured at the same time and need caring for. Most recent contacts indicate she had fallen ill, and might have succumbed to an illness let alone been killed in the violence.