Escaping ISIS

Escaping ISIS

As ISIS sweeps through the Middle East, the regions' minority groups face brutal oppression. In Northern Iraq, ex-CIA officers Michele Rigby Assad and her husband, Joseph Assad, feel compelled to do what they can to help. Michele joins Sophia Di Martino to recount the steps that led to a dramatic evacuation of Iraqi Christians from Erbil in 2015.
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True Spies, Episode 192 - Escaping ISIS

++Warning: This episode contains graphic and violent descriptions some listeners may find distressing.

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino and this is True Spies from SPYSCAPE Studios.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: The project in Iraq followed our careers in the CIA, and it required the knowledge and the skills of someone who had done the kind of work we had done. It felt really good to use those skills in pursuit of a humanitarian objective to help other people. 

NARRATOR: Escaping ISIS. 4th December 2015. The streets are lined with fairy lights and illuminated Christmas trees. It’s a special time of year for the residents here. In the Christian suburb of Ankawa in Erbil, northern Iraq - part of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan - two ex-CIA officers, a husband and wife, are eating at an empty rooftop hotel restaurant.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We were eating an American hamburger and French fries, a little taste of home just some kind of comfort food. 

NARRATOR: The wall of windows that overlook the freezing city are fogged with condensation, but they can still make out the Mar Elia Chaldean Christian church opposite. The church's cross hangs high in the sky but the couple doesn’t feel blessed. In fact, they’re completely exhausted. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: And a group of people walked through the door and it got our attention because we heard American English. I remember hearing, also, British English and Iraqi Christian senior leadership.

NARRATOR: British and American diplomats are talking to a local Iraqi bishop. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: You can identify them like a mile away because they have their black robes on and their crosses around their neck.

NARRATOR: The lights of a tiny Christmas tree blink on and off. The unlikely group sits down behind the couple and starts talking in concerned tones. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We're like leaning back in our chairs to hear what they're talking about. 

NARRATOR: As counterintelligence officers, they were trained to read between the lines. But the words they hear need no interpretation: ISIS is going to attack the region.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: A threat had been collected by intelligence agencies, probably by my former colleagues. I could guess it could be signals intelligence where you overheard a conversation that ISIS was having. 

NARRATOR: The Islamic extremists plan to attack Christian buildings, properties, and people in the Ankawa suburb - home of the church - with a car bomb. The couple look at each other and freeze. The wife eats slowly and recalls her time in the CIA.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: When we would get a threat, by law, we had to share that information with them. And so, here I am. I was like, “I cannot believe this. I am on the other side of this. This is so weird because I know it's going on.” 

NARRATOR: Since leaving the CIA - being the one in the know and disseminating information - she’s flipped to being the one on the outside, receiving information, albeit through an overheard conversation. Just one well-placed explosion could take them out and destroy the church. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: And that's when we knew that we were going to have to change locations. 

NARRATOR: Their hotel is no longer safe. To make matters worse, both of them also believe they’ll be on Iranian intelligence target lists as US government employees who have served in a war zone. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: My greatest fear was just to be snatched off the street and thrown into the back of the car and driven over the border into Iran. And you'd never come back from that. 

NARRATOR: In addition to that, her husband is also a Christian from Egypt, now living in America. He would be a prime target for ISIS who are fighting on the frontline against Kurdish forces now just 30 miles away. What’s more, they’ve both been working with the priest who presides over the church across the road. Living on his compound are nearly 600 terrified IDPs seeking refuge.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: IDP stands for Internally Displaced Persons. 

NARRATOR: The IDPs are there because of ISIS - the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the highly radicalized Sunni jihadist organization employing brutal tactics to establish a self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: And it's essentially like a refugee camp, an IDP camp, full of hopelessness and a lot of despair.

NARRATOR: They’re Iraqi Christians. Some have lost family members. All of them have lost their homes, their businesses, their livelihoods. All are traumatized. All have fled.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: These people need help right now. They're the most vulnerable of the populations in Iraq. 

NARRATOR: Father Douglas - the vicar of the church and the IDP’s spiritual leader - tries to give them hope in the darkest of hours. He prays. But time is running out. The ex-CIA officers put down their burgers. They’ve left their lives of espionage behind and used that unique training to start helping people fleeing war. They know the people in the camp very well. They’ve been frantically preparing to airlift 150 of them to Europe for relocation.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: These people fled with just the clothes on their back and so their home is filled with personal information and these ISIS people were calling them and saying, “I know who you are. We want money from you.”

NARRATOR: And now the danger is just around the corner. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So ISIS was right there and everyone was very cognisant that at any point in time, the line could break so the Kurds were doing their best to hold ISIS back. 

NARRATOR: Who knows how long they can hold out? The couple need to get back to the church to warn Father Douglas about the new threat they have overheard. The small church is extremely vulnerable to attack, surrounded by a small fence and minimal security. If ISIS succeeds in its plan, the scale of loss would be devastating.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: When I talk about this, I still start shaking and I feel the nervous energy that I felt in that moment, like even now, all these years later. 

NARRATOR: If ISIS breaks through, the only thing standing between them and that devastation is two ex-CIA officers. They will do everything in their power to expedite the safe removal of the IDPs from the church sitting across the street. But will they make it in time? 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: My name is Michele Rigby Assad. I spent 10 years working in the CIA. The majority of my career was spent in the Middle East. I am an expert in counterterrorism and counterintelligence. 

NARRATOR: Iraq, the cradle of civilization.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: It was made up of Sunni and Shia, Kurds and Christians, and Yazidis.

NARRATOR: But in 2003, as Western forces launched the war on terror, there was an unintended consequence. The balance between Iraq’s diverse sects of people that had been strictly enforced by a cruel dictator was now wiped out. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: When Coalition forces went into Iraq and took Saddam Hussein out of power, the country devolved into chaos. There was sectarian cleansing going on, and the entire country fell apart, particularly when Coalition forces disassembled the security and intelligence and law enforcement organizations that had put a lid on sectarian strife. 

NARRATOR: Between 2006 and 2008, the country was deemed stable enough for the Americans to retreat. Al-Qaeda had been pushed back but Iraq was by no means in the clear.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: Al-Qaeda didn't just disappear. And eventually that's going to come back and it's going to be a problem. And so those of us who had been in Iraq were not surprised by the developments of 2015. 

NARRATOR: In 2015, the ISIS death machine gains strength and rampages from Syria into Iraq.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: The Summer of the Great Migration. It was the year in which refugees were flooding into Europe, countries like Italy and Greece, were receiving tens of thousands of refugees every single day. 

NARRATOR: With each mile ISIS gains, it recruits fighters, finances, and field artillery. They persecute and execute religious and ethnic minorities. There is no negotiation here.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled to Kurdistan. 

NARRATOR: ISIS is now starving the inhabitants out of nearby Christian-majority cities by blockading vital supplies. They enslave or slaughter those who refuse to convert to Islam. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: Suddenly and almost overnight, they took control of Mosul, which is Iraq's second largest city - which shocked everyone, how quickly that happened. Basically taking control from the Iraqi government and Iraqi forces. 

NARRATOR: The dangerous expansion of ISIS sees no sign of slowing. Until they encounter Kurdish forces 30 miles away from Ankawa, where we find our church. Despite Kurdish forces being overwhelmed, they halt the progress of ISIS. The Christians from the region have carried the torch of their faith through the ages. They’ve already suffered persecution at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, al-Qaeda, and now ISIS. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We knew people who had been uprooted from Baghdad, fled to Mosul, and were then uprooted from Mosul to Qaraqosh and other ancient Christian villages. And so these were repeat IDPs. 

NARRATOR: It’s a humanitarian crisis. Erbil is overrun with IDPs, and Mar Elia church struggles to help everybody. The Great Migration knows no end and there’s no plan; The IDPs are just waiting for fate to decide what to do with them. Against this backdrop, Michele makes a decision. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We can't just sit around and watch this tragedy happen.

NARRATOR: She’s going to help the Christians in Iraq and has the skills that are going to make a difference to many people. But how did she get here, and what is her plan going to be? Michele has always been drawn to this region. She graduated in 2000 with a Master’s degree in Contemporary Arab Studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she met Joseph.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: I met my future husband, Joseph, [who] also served in the CIA for 10 years. So we were side by side during that career.

NARRATOR: Much of what Michele did during her decade in the CIA is classified, but I can tell you that she was posted to Iraq. With a front-row seat to so much tragedy, she was relieved to finally leave and vowed never to return. But when the events of 2015 began to unfold, her need to help wasn’t just ideological. It was personal.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: And the reason why this whole project was so personal for us was the fact that Joseph had to flee Egypt because he was kicked out of university for his faith. And so, he came to the United States to get his education and serve as a counterterrorism officer.

NARRATOR: The CIA had given them great purpose, but since leaving the organization, they’d been on the lookout for jobs that could make the most of their vast array of skills. In 2015, with ISIS filling up news broadcasts around the world - she had an idea that she couldn’t shake.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: And I had this very urgent feeling that Joseph needed to contact a former boss And so when we finally made contact with her, she said, “Oh my gosh, I've been looking for you.” And she's like, “I've been brought into this huge project by Hollywood producers Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, who have always been very passionate about helping Christian minorities in the Middle East. And with all that's going on in 2015 with all these refugees and ISIS taking over northern Iraq, they're saying we need to do something to help these Christians.” 

NARRATOR: Joseph’s old boss doesn’t represent a charity or an NGO, they’re just a group of people with a get-it-done attitude. But they don’t know how to operationalize this endeavor, and that’s where Michele and Joseph come in. They have their new mission: help Christians in the Middle East flee the likes of ISIS. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: Our aim was to say, “Let's see if we can find a country willing to take these people.” 

NARRATOR: Easier said than done, no doubt. But if anyone is qualified for the job, it’s Michele and Joseph. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We knew that it was going to require people who could carry out complex operations in a chaotic place in a war zone. Okay. Ding, ding, ding. We're perfect for that. We knew it is going to require a major diplomatic effort that we were going to have to engage leaders of countries. You had to understand diplomacy and relationship-building with other countries. We had that. 

NARRATOR: They also know how to navigate the idiosyncrasies of the Middle East. It’s the job they’d been preparing for their whole lives. They’re put into contact with Father Douglas al-Bazi. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So we actually heard about Father Douglas, who had been doing some lobbying and advocacy work in Washington, D.C. trying to educate people on what was happening to the Christians in Iraq. 

NARRATOR: Father Douglas is in charge of the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church, the church where we started our story. Its brown brick walls are unassuming, its design simple, its roof low. The cross on top looks out to the horizon, a symbol of hope in the region. It’s now a packed safe haven with a brutal and bloody war on its doorstep. Some of the IDPs have been there for two years with no end in sight. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: There were a couple of single-wide trailers. One was used as Father Douglas' office and the other was being used as a library and meeting place for the people in the camp. And within that large area, which used to be kind of like an open-air area, each family had its own trailer and communal washing, communal bathrooms, and communal laundry areas. 

NARRATOR: Father Douglas understood what it meant to be persecuted for one’s faith.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: He was the perfect person to give them comfort, to say, “I know what you're going through, I know how you feel.” During 2006/2007 he was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Iraq. They tortured him.

NARRATOR: His torturers wanted him to say the “shahada” - the testimony of faith - and convert to Islam. He wouldn’t do it. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: They beat him. They knocked his teeth out. They broke vertebrae in his back. He really had so many moments where he thought, “This is it.” 

NARRATOR: Father Douglas’ captors - when not torturing him - asked him for his advice on family matters, and for forgiveness for their actions. Ministry is giving others what you yourself need. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So he was eventually released by al-Qaeda after they paid a ransom. 

NARRATOR: Father Douglas got lucky. His church and his family managed to scrape together enough cash for his release. But then...

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: He was kidnapped a second time.

NARRATOR: The bullet is still lodged in his leg from this second attack. To give back to fellow Christians in the Middle East is a deeply fulfilling quest for Father Douglas. But since so many Christians fled to Kurdistan and his church, he needs support. As of September 2015, the church grounds are home to large families, children, grandparents, newborns, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, journalists, builders, cleaners, farmers…

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We had the whole broad spectrum of humanity in front of us. We are going to go meet with them, get their stories, gather their documentation, and be able to say, “We know who these people are. we're not going to be bringing in anyone who's going to be a threat to your country from a criminal perspective.”

NARRATOR: Michele and Joseph plan to vet 400 people in one week, taking their photographs and gathering their biodata, education levels, work, and family history. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We knew that that would make it much easier for receiving countries to say ‘yes’. 

NARRATOR: They still don’t have a country in mind, however. They’re also going to use their counterintelligence skills to weed out any ISIS or terrorist factions that may be lurking amongst the IDPs. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So if something doesn't smell right, it doesn't sound right. We're going to be able to know that. 

NARRATOR: They collect everybody’s ID. Identification documents are utterly essential in the Arab world.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: When we started collecting documentation from these people - they fled overnight, they fled quickly - but yet they had their documentation. They had their paperwork there. They had their IDs.

NARRATOR: If anyone in the camp was unable or unwilling to present their ID that would represent a major red flag. On the 6th of September 2015, the vetting begins in the camp’s library. Books, crayons, and small toys lay next to their application forms, cameras, and pots of coffee. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: I need to hear their stories. We also thought it was important to humanize these people to potential receiving countries. It's one thing to think about a number of people. It's another thing to hear how they fled their ancient homeland, how they fled their home, how they had lost everything. 

NARRATOR: Michele tries to maintain her professionalism through hearing these terrible stories, sometimes breaking down once these people have left the makeshift ‘office’. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: There were people who just had come to the end of themselves and said, “I can't take this anymore. It's too much. And I would like to be able, if possible, to see if any other countries would accept us as refugees.” 

NARRATOR: Michele and Joseph had also come up with a vetting program that was stronger and more comprehensive than anything used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - UNHCR - or the United States. Going through those channels can take years, Michele planned to make this happen in a few weeks. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So we decided to try working outside of the UNHCR system and say, “Here's our background. Here's why you can trust us with this. And we need quick action. We're not going to wait five years to see if this works.” 

NARRATOR: They are getting daily reports about the progress on the frontline. The Kurdish forces are holding for now, but they’ve no idea for how long. Resources and soldiers are dwindling against the might of ISIS. After the first day of interviewing, there are no red flags. She retreats back to the hotel opposite the compound. She starts the second day by meeting a man with his family. He says he’s a former journalist. His six-year-old daughter sits on his lap.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: He had a flat affect and lacked emotion. Most of the time, people were just weeping in front of us as they told their stories. So, of course, as a former intelligence officer, what you do is you dig. You say, “You're a journalist. Where are your credentials?” And then he opens up a folder and he's got a ton of credentials.

NARRATOR: Journalist badges, ID cards, and lots of his published articles. He’s legit. But he’s still acting suspiciously. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: And he explained if you didn't toe the ISIS line, you were killed as a journalist.

NARRATOR: Many of his journalist friends and colleagues had been slaughtered by ISIS. They stood by their journalistic principles and morals. As a man of morals himself, this journalist fled before ISIS could get to him. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: This poor man had a flat affect because he was so deflated that he had nothing left. He couldn't even feed his family. He said that to us. 

NARRATOR: ISIS managed to get his phone number, and were calling him saying they were going to slit his children’s throats. He believes that his God is testing him to the absolute limit, but his faith remains unbroken.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: As a professional elicitor of information, sometimes things don't look right because you're dealing with people who have been through such extreme trauma that they don't behave normally.

NARRATOR: They meet many more Christian IDPs that week. ISIS is being held back by the Kurdish forces, but it’s a dirty fight. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: Our motivations to do this were that if we can use this hard-won skill set and if we can help someone who is suffering, improve their life, and have some hope for the future, that's what gets you through the moments when you're absolutely exhausted. I don't even know if this is going to work. And there were even moments where it felt fairly dangerous, what we were doing. But again, you're not doing it for yourself. You're doing it for someone else. 

NARRATOR: They carry on. Late in the vetting process, they meet a man named Hamad. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: Hamad was the fiancé of one of the young ladies who we had interviewed along with her family. After her family's interview, she came to us separately and said, “I'm engaged. My fiancé is living outside.” He wasn't in the camp. He was a local. “And I would really like him to come with us if we're relocated to another country.” 

NARRATOR: They agree to speak to him. When he enters the office, he won’t meet their eyes, his behavior is odd. Is this another trauma victim? 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: When we took his ID we're like, “So you're Muslim?” He's like, “No, I'm actually a Christian convert. So one day I just kind of woke up and I thought ‘I think I'll be a Christian’.” 

NARRATOR: Alarm bells go off.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. Immediately we’re like, “No, no, no, no. That's not how it works.” 

NARRATOR: That seemed an unlikely justification. As a best-case scenario, conversion to Christianity would mean total societal rejection and being renounced by your family. As a worst-case scenario? Well, you’ve already heard about that. Hamed gives them the name of the priest who baptized him and shows them a scar he’d got by selling a kidney to pay an ISIS ransom to release his mother. Michele digs deeper. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So we said, “What do you think of what Christ did for you on the cross?” And a normal convert would probably break out into tears at that point and say, “I am so overwhelmed by what Christ did for me.” Instead, he recoiled, literally pushed his body away from the table And so we realized at that point it is possible that not only is he not a Christian, he might actually be a terrorist.

NARRATOR: Joseph does his due diligence. The priest never baptized him. The scar near his kidney is from a car accident. Hamad won’t be coming with his fiancée's family. Was he just a liar who wanted a free trip abroad or was he an ISIS plant? His information is passed to Kurdish authorities and he’s not seen again. Michele and Joseph wrap up the interview process. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: It was a very exhausting, super intense process that we went through to be able to say, “We know who these people are. We can vouch for them and here's all their documentation for you.” 

NARRATOR: Now they need a country to give the information to. The lives of 400 people are contained in one blue suitcase. But the timing is terrible. After the summer of The Great Migration, much of Europe, and their home country of America, refuse to take any more refugees. Many countries never respond at all to their requests for meetings. And all the while, Michele and Joseph’s personal safety is under growing threat. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: After we learned that there were active threats against us and others in the area, we had to change hotels and we had to go to one that had a lot of security and different layers of security to it. You are very cognisant that you are in the middle of a war zone. Anything can happen at any time. 

NARRATOR: The risk is great, but the reward will be even greater. Days go by, and just as they’re losing hope of finding a country, Michele sees an article in the Washington Post that Slovakia is willing to take in 200 refugees from the Middle East and that they have to be Christian. They believe it’s a sign. Joseph flies to Slovakia with the suitcase in the cabin. He won’t risk it going missing in the hold. A contact of theirs sets up meetings with the Ministry of the Interior. Joseph leads the meetings with the story of his own persecution as a Christian from the Middle East, and all he had gained from getting out. Michele, Father Douglas, and the IDPs. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: There was so much stress and so much pressure. And so the only thing I could do was pray. And oh boy, I prayed a lot. I believe in the power of prayer but also, literally, there was nothing else I could do.

NARRATOR: There is no Plan B. While Joseph is away, the church is inundated with inquiries about the relocation program. The word has spread across Erbil. Joseph eventually returns from Slovakia and they wait again. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So our diplomacy worked. Slovakia agreed to take a group of people from this camp, and they were very impressed with all of our documentation and our vetting. And they said, “You guys just accomplished in a few weeks what it would have probably taken us a year or two to accomplish.” So they said, “We'll take 100 people.”

NARRATOR: One hundred? But that’s not enough. What will happen to the others?

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We negotiated for more because we decided that an aircraft could potentially take 150 people. And they said, “Okay, we'll take 150.” 

NARRATOR: One hundred and 50 people is still only a fraction of the 400 people they vetted and the 560 people on the church grounds. If this goes well, however, the Slovakian government will consider taking more.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: It felt sometimes like you're dealing with the Titanic. The Titanic is going down. You have access to a lifeboat. I don't want to be the person that says, “You get to go, You don't.” And I said, “Father Douglas, do you mind being the person who decides to go?” So he picked various families, and we put a list together of who was going to go.

NARRATOR: The diplomacy is done, but now the real work begins of getting 150 people out of a war zone. The remaining IDPs - those not flying out on the plane - will be left in Iraq to confront their fates. Michele and Joseph Assad have just processed 400 internally displaced persons (IDPs) to help them find a new life in a new land. Slovakia agrees to take 150 IDPs - a plane-full - and now the carefully choreographed evacuation can begin on 7th December 2015. It’s here that we began our story. Just two days before the evacuation, the exhausted couple catch wind of an ISIS plot to target Christian sites in the region. Father Douglas’ church is a sitting duck. With the situation growing more volatile with every passing minute, Michele returns to the church and reflects on why she’s putting herself in such grave danger, in a country she vowed never to return to.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: And there is this life-size nativity scene that they had built with wood. It really, really struck me as the source of hope in a desperately hopeless place for people who had lost everything. As hard as life is right now, there is hope for something better in the future. It just reminded you what this was all about. 

NARRATOR: The buses are booked and due to leave for the airport in the morning, with loading commencing at 3 am. The roads are clear and quiet. Nervous anticipation spreads through the camp. Families start saying their goodbyes.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: Father Douglas had prepared for a last meal at the camp for these families And in the middle of that supper we get notified that the airport was being shut down within about an hour or two. The Russians were shooting cruise missiles over Iraqi airspace into Syria against ISIS targets. 

NARRATOR: All Iraqi airspace is closed, anything moving in the skies will be shot down. The evacuation is postponed. Every delay causes a cascade of problems for Michele and the team, the Slovakian government, and airport staff. For the IDPs, it could mean the difference between life and death. Michele has lost her plane. At great pains, she will have to start from scratch and find a new one.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So we're under this inordinate amount of stress. Like, “How are we going to make this work? Is this going to happen? Is it not going to happen?” 

NARRATOR: A new date is set for 9th December. That morning, the luggage has been processed and loaded when, suddenly, Michele receives word that this second flight has now been canceled. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: All commercial aircraft that were coming from the West were completely canceled and we lost our aircraft.

NARRATOR: There’s no daylight among all the darkness and this end chapter won’t fall into place. The risk to the airlines is too great. The IDPs are stuck. Their luggage has been processed and locked away and they are getting desperate. Unfortunately, these are people who have been conditioned to always expect the worst. Michele and Joseph are completely spent and a car bomb could arrive any minute. They need just an ounce of luck. They then hear of a plane owned by Kurdish officials that’s grounded at Erbil airport.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So we thought, “I wonder if it's possible that we could have someone intervene with Kurdish officials to get us an aircraft?” 

NARRATOR: Michele and Joseph are very well connected.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We knew someone in Washington, D.C. And the next thing you know, we're put in touch with the CEO of that local Kurdish airline. Early the next morning, Joseph goes to meet with this individual. This guy says, “Who the heck are you? My phone has been blown up with phone calls and texts from all kinds of people telling me I need to help you out. Who are you and what the heck do you want?”

NARRATOR: “We’re ex-CIA. We’re helping 150 Iraqi Christians get away from ISIS, and we need a plane… today.” 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: I'm not even sure who all these people were that were sending him all of these messages. He said, “You know what? Fine. I'm going to cancel the reservations in this aircraft and I can give it to you. I can give it to you tomorrow.” 

NARRATOR: It’s the glimmer of hope that everybody so desperately needs. December 10th is the new date to evacuate, although many doubts remain.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: People in the Middle East say ‘yes’ all the time, and they don't necessarily mean yes. They could mean ‘no, I just don't want to tell you’. So you're always second-guessing whether it's real and whether it's true. 

NARRATOR: Father Douglas notifies everyone in the Mar Elia compound. The IDPs - once again - prepare to leave. Hopefully, the flight will depart later on that cold afternoon. There are no plans for Russia to close the airspace today.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We were so exhausted by this point. The amount of stress. I mean, we were not sleeping at night. I had gotten really sick. 

NARRATOR: But the mission must continue. They’re so close. The chief of security at Erbil International Airport - who knows and trusts Father Douglas - tells them if they are late, and his guards change shifts, there’s nothing he can do.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We had forgotten that we hadn't taken people's passports out of the safe in time. So we basically got these people loaded onto the buses like an hour and a half late. So we knew at this point that we were going to arrive at the first checkpoint to get to the airport too late because there was going to be a change in the guard. 

NARRATOR: The sun is now setting. The intense stress on the buses contrasts with the serene pastel backdrop of the evening sky.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: And you think to yourself, “That picture belies what is going on inside of all of us.”

NARRATOR: On one bus, the Iraqis were singing, clapping their hands, and doing all they could to lessen the emotional impact of leaving their homeland. On the other buses, families were more pensive, the expressions on their faces reflecting a mix of sadness, relief, and cautious optimism. One hundred and 50 precious souls all pinning their futures on Michele and Joseph.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: It was originally 150, but one older person pulled out at the last minute. We now had 149 travelers, many of whom had never been in an airport before, had never been on a plane before, had never checked in, and had no idea what they're doing. 

NARRATOR: Erbil International Airport is classified as a high-threat target area. Screenings, dogs, armed guards, and suspicious officers patrol the grounds and gates. ISIS would love to get their hands on an airport. The change of security guards at the first checkpoint has already happened, but after negotiation, they’re cleared through. The second checkpoint - near the airport loading zone - is the most critical. These new guards don’t know why 14 buses are suddenly approaching them and become apprehensive.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: Because in the Middle East, people get very uncomfortable if they sense that something's up or something's going to go wrong. They're just going to say, ‘no’, shut it down, and ask questions later. 

NARRATOR: They’re ordered to stop and to pull into the security area. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: If that happens we're going to be hours off schedule. It'll throw off the entire evacuation.

NARRATOR: They’ll be questioned, delayed, or turned away. Father Douglas and Joseph get on their phones. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: And at that point, I just thought, “This is it. This is where it ends.”

NARRATOR: The airport general can’t help them. It’s chaos. But their faith is greater than their fear and in the Middle East one always expects the unexpected. The driver of the first vehicle begins to turn the wheel into the security area.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: And Joseph’s like, “No, no, no. Straight, straight, straight. Go straight.” And so we were somehow given the go-ahead to go through the checkpoint and go directly to the terminal. I mean, my heart has never beat so fast. It absolutely felt like divine intervention because there was no reason why he should have said ‘yes’ to us. There just was not one reason on the Earth. 

NARRATOR: Everybody gets inside the terminal. Luck, at last, seems to be on their side. There’s just one last barrier to clear: the check-in desk. The whole mission now rides on this moment. This person has the power to shut this down and send everybody back to the compound, back to the threat of ISIS. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: I was like a travel agent facilitating these travelers. He's like, “So who are these people? These people have a lot of luggage. What are they traveling for?” “Oh, they're going for a holiday in Slovakia. It's a Christmas holiday and these are Christians.” 

NARRATOR: The airport’s bright, glaring lights make the travelers feel exposed and on edge. They are being forced to leave their homeland to start a new life in a strange foreign place. Father Douglas, Joseph, and Michele are all boarding the flight with them, providing they can get past check-in. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: He's got a furrowed brow and I'm thinking, “No, don't shut this. Don't be suspicious, don't ask more questions.” And he kept coming back to the issue like, “What are these people traveling for?” I'm like, “Oh, come on, man.”

NARRATOR: He’s suspicious but doesn’t sound the alarm. He processes the passports.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: At the very end he goes, “I have a feeling these people are never going to come back here again.” And I just laughed like, “Ha ha ha. That's funny”. 

NARRATOR: An extensive background in counterterrorism is a wonderful thing but it also never hurts to be polite. She keeps him occupied so he doesn’t talk to the IDPs.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So everyone got checked in and we're now going through the internal layers of security to get to the plane. And our travelers are terrified.

NARRATOR: The evacuation was no longer a vague possibility. It was real. It was happening. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: There's still something in the back of your mind that's like, “I really hope there's a plane there and that the airport doesn't get shut down before we take off.” 

NARRATOR: Four months after hearing about the Christians trapped in a church, 149 were getting out. At 9:15 in the evening, on that cold December, Michele sends a text home to her family who has been cheering her on the whole time: “Wheels up”. They had escaped ISIS. 

NARRATOR: Michele considers the mission one of the triumphs of her career - even if it was only a partial success.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: So obviously, not only were there hundreds of people left behind in the Mar Elia Chaldean Church camp, but there were hundreds of thousands of displaced persons left behind in Iraq. And that was a very, very difficult concept to think about and deal with because these people still had lost everything and still had a very uncertain future. 

NARRATOR: She finds it difficult when thinking back to those people who stayed in the compound.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: I think that some of them established new lives in Kurdistan. It took another couple of years. But eventually, Kurdish authorities liberated Qaraqosh - and all these places in northern Iraq that ISIS had control over - and largely pushed them out of Iraq.

NARRATOR: Many Iraqi Christians wanted to return home but ISIS left their towns and cities in rubble. 

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: I realized that the struggle was worth it because the amount of counterterrorism and counterintelligence knowledge that we had gained as a result, the ability to carry out operations in such difficult spaces meant that we were able to use that in the service of other human beings. 

NARRATOR: The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18.

MICHELE RIGBY ASSAD: We literally started by saying, “If it's one family, then it's worth our effort. That's enough because every life matters.”

NARRATOR: The passengers on the flight to Slovakia clap and cheer as the plane ascends the darkened sky. It’s a journey that will, ultimately, give them the hope of a brighter future. I’m Sophia Di Martino, join me next time for a selection of some of the most useful examples of tradecraft from the True Spies vaults.

Guest Bio

Michele Rigby Assad spent 10 years working in the CIA, most of it in the Middle East. She is an expert in counterterrorism and counterintelligence.

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