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T. Gopikrishna freed from Islamic State captivity says: I am Lucky to be alive

Indian academic T. Gopikrishna says the bad dreams about his 414-day ordeal as a hostage still haunt him after his rescue from Islamic State (IS) captivity in Libya

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Members of forces loyal to Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) guard a lookout point in the coastal city of Sirte during a military operation to clear the area of Islamic State militants, Sept. 19, 2016. BenarNews

October 4, 2016: Indian academic T. Gopikrishna says the bad dreams about his 414-day ordeal as a hostage still haunt him after his rescue from Islamic State (IS) captivity in Libya earlier this month.

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“It was a very difficult period. I never thought I would be able to see my family again. And though I am fully aware I am now safe at home, I still have trouble sleeping soundly. The nightmares of my time in captivity jolt me awake almost every night,” Gopikrishna told BenarNews in a phone interview from his home city of Hyderabad in southern India, where he returned on Sept. 24.

A former computer science and engineering professor at Sirte University in Libya, he and his Indian colleague C. Balaramkishan, an English professor at the campus, were kidnapped by suspected IS militants on July 29, 2015, while traveling to Tripoli airport to catch a flight home from their annual vacation.

The Libyan army rescued the pair in a military operation on Sept. 14, the details of which were not made public.

The two men were among four Indians abducted together by IS militants. The two other hostages, Laxmikant Ramakrishna and Vijay Kumar, fellow colleagues at the university in Sirte, were released after two days in captivity.

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Recalling the day of their abduction, Gopikrishna said he and Balaramkishan were chatting about their respective families and their holiday plans, when masked men with guns stopped their cab about 50 km (31 miles) from Sirte.

“The men spoke to our driver for a few minutes, after which the driver left the vehicle. And before we could even understand what was happening, our faces were covered with sacks. Both of us were pleading to be let off. But we were told to stay quiet,” he said.

Gopikrishna. BenarNews
T. Gopikrishna. BenarNews

14 months in a ‘pigeonhole’

[bctt tweet=”The professors were shoved in the back of a car and driven a short distance away – ” username=””]“not more than a 20-minute drive or may be a bit longer,” said Gopikrishna, adding they were then offloaded and pushed into a small, dingy room, where the sacks over the heads were removed.

“There was no light in the room, but for the bit coming through from a tiny opening high up on one of the walls. There was almost zero ventilation. There were two mattresses on the floor. I thought I’d suffocate before they could kill me,” he said.

Little did the professors know that the “pigeonhole” would become their home for the next 14 months.

“For days on end we wouldn’t see our abductors. Twice a day someone would slip in our food – most of time it was bread and vegetables. We were never physically tortured, but not knowing who had kidnapped us or why, or what was going to be our fate was enough of a mental torture,” Gopikrishna said.

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“We had nothing to do aside from eating and sleeping. But Balaramkishan and I would chat about our families and how we might never see them again. We would cry together and sometimes laugh at jokes we told each other to keep our sanity,” he said.

‘We thought this was it’

During their captivity, the two hostages often heard gunshots, Gopikrishna recalled.

“At times we hoped that the army was around to rescue us, and at other times that we’d be killed so that at least the endless wait would be over,” he added.

Then one day, after another round of gunshots, the professors heard banging on the door to their room.

“We thought this was it. They’re going to kill us. But when the door opened it was the army. They said they were there to rescue us. We didn’t know how to react. We could not believe it,” Gopikrishna said.

Back home with his family in Hyderabad, Gopikrishna said he regretted moving to Libya in 2007 for the extra money he was offered.

“I am just very lucky to be alive and back home. I can’t thank the Libyan army and the Indian government enough for giving me a second go at life,” he said.

His wife, Kalyani, told BenarNews that she wouldn’t let him leave again even if he wanted to.

“I have waited for so long [for his return]. [I am] very happy he is back, and can’t express my joy in words. I won’t let him go again,” she said.

All efforts to contact Balaramkishan, also from Hyderabad, failed. His wife, Sridevi, told BenarNews that he was not interested in talking to the press.

“Our entire family is overjoyed he is back safe. For 14 months we were living in tension, surviving solely on the hope that he will one day return home,” she said.

More captives

According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, while the government had facilitated the return of about 700 Indians back home from Libya, about 800 Indians are employed in different parts of Libya, which is one of the strongholds of IS.

Ministry spokesman Y.S. Kataria did not rule out the possibility of more Indians being held captive by suspected IS members in Libya.

“We know 39 [Indian] people are in [IS] captivity in Iraq. The number of captives in Libya is still being assessed through our consulate there,” he told BenarNews.

“All diplomatic channels are being adopted for their safe release. The embassy officials are in constant touch with the respective authorities, and where there is no government, with whoever is in control of the area,” he said. (BenarNews)

Next Story

Facebook Asked to Take Down Auto-Generated Al-Qaida Pages

Facebook likes to say that its automated systems remove the vast majority of prohibited content glorifying the Islamic State group and al-Qaida before it's reported

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facebook, Al-qaida, terror, islamic state, pages
Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook, joined at right by Nick Pickles, public policy director for Twitter, testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sept. 18, 2019. VOA

In the face of criticism that Facebook is not doing enough to combat extremist messaging, the company likes to say that its automated systems remove the vast majority of prohibited content glorifying the Islamic State group and al-Qaida before it’s reported.

But a whistleblower’s complaint shows that Facebook itself has inadvertently provided the two extremist groups with a networking and recruitment tool by producing dozens of pages in their names.

The social networking company appears to have made little progress on the issue in the four months since The Associated Press detailed how pages that Facebook auto-generates for businesses are aiding Middle East extremists and white supremacists in the United States.

On Wednesday, U.S. senators on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will be questioning representatives from social media companies, including Monika Bickert, who heads Facebooks efforts to stem extremist messaging.

The new details come from an update of a complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission that the National Whistleblower Center plans to file this week. The filing obtained by the AP identifies almost 200 auto-generated pages, some for businesses, others for schools or other categories, that directly reference the Islamic State group and dozens more representing al-Qaida and other known groups. One page listed as a “political ideology” is titled “I love Islamic state.” It features an IS logo inside the outlines of Facebook’s famous thumbs-up icon.

facebook, Al-qaida, terror, islamic state, pages
Facebook auto-generating Al-Qaida, terror group, pages. Pixabay

In response to a request for comment, a Facebook spokesperson told the AP: “Our priority is detecting and removing content posted by people that violates our policy against dangerous individuals and organizations to stay ahead of bad actors. Auto-generated pages are not like normal Facebook pages as people can’t comment or post on them and we remove any that violate our policies. While we cannot catch every one, we remain vigilant in this effort.”

Facebook has a number of functions that auto-generate pages from content posted by users. The updated complaint scrutinizes one function that is meant to help business networking. It scrapes employment information from users’ pages to create pages for businesses. In this case, it may be helping the extremist groups because it allows users to like the pages, potentially providing a list of sympathizers for recruiters.

The new filing also found that users’ pages promoting extremist groups remain easy to find with simple searches using their names. They uncovered one page for “Mohammed Atta” with an iconic photo of one of the al-Qaida adherents, who was a hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks. The page lists the user’s work as “Al Qaidah” and education as “University Master Bin Laden” and “School Terrorist Afghanistan.”

Facebook has been working to limit the spread of extremist material on its service, so far with mixed success. In March, it expanded its definition of prohibited content to include U.S. white nationalist and white separatist material as well as that from international extremist groups. It says it has banned 200 white supremacist organizations and 26 million pieces of content related to global extremist groups like IS and al-Qaida.

facebook, Al-qaida, terror, islamic state, pages
An Islamic State flag is captured in this photo illustration. VOA

It also expanded its definition of terrorism to include not just acts of violence attended to achieve a political or ideological aim, but also attempts at violence, especially when aimed at civilians with the intent to coerce and intimidate. It’s unclear, though, how well enforcement works if the company is still having trouble ridding its platform of well-known extremist organizations’ supporters.

But as the report shows, plenty of material gets through the cracks and gets auto-generated.

The AP story in May highlighted the auto-generation problem, but the new content identified in the report suggests that Facebook has not solved it.

ALSO READ: U.S. Media Industry Going Through A Bad Phase

The report also says that researchers found that many of the pages referenced in the AP report were removed more than six weeks later on June 25, the day before Bickert was questioned for another congressional hearing.

The issue was flagged in the initial SEC complaint filed by the center’s executive director, John Kostyack, that alleges the social media company has exaggerated its success combatting extremist messaging.

“Facebook would like us to believe that its magical algorithms are somehow scrubbing its website of extremist content,” Kostyack said. “Yet those very same algorithms are auto-generating pages with titles like `I Love Islamic State,’ which are ideal for terrorists to use for networking and recruiting.” (VOA)