WASHINGTON (CN) – Three Americans who were taken hostage and tortured in Iraq claim in a federal complaint that Iran and prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gave material support to their abductors.
Russell Frost, Waiel el-Maadawy and Amr Mohamed brought their complaint Tuesday just over a year after their abduction. The Americans say they had been working in Iraq on a government contract to train Iraqi special forces when they were grabbed on Jan. 15, 2016, outside a translator’s apartment in Dora, a neighborhood of southeastern Baghdad.
The men initially thought they had been taken be Sunnis aligned with the Islamic State group, but el-Maadawy noticed an image of al-Sadr on one of his captor’s cellphones.
Al-Sadr led the Shiite Mahdi Army after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which has been closely linked to the sectarian violence that plagued the country in its wake.
Since the U.S. has sided with al-Sadr-aligned militia groups in the fight against the Islamic State, this gave the men confidence that they might survive the ordeal.
Frost, el-Maadawy and Mohamed eventually learned that they had been abducted by Saraya al-Salam, a militia they say al-Sadr founded and Iran funds.
Lawsuits against Iran for providing material support to terror groups are fairly common, but the men’s filing in Washington marks perhaps the first time anyone has sued al-Sadr.
“We felt like he should be responsible for organizing and instructing the groups that took these guys captive just as much as Iran is,” Kevin Hoffman, an attorney for the former captives, said in an interview.
Hoffman’s clients say they were held incommunicado for 31 days, blindfolded at a compound in Sadr City, in violation of numerous international laws.
“The hostage takers kicked the legs out from underneath their hostages, forcing them to kneel before the mural of Muqtada al-Sadr, taped dirty rags over their eyes, bound their hands and feet, and taped rags over their mouths so tightly that the men could barely breathe,” the complaint states.
“Every day for the next three weeks, they underwent psychological and physical torture,” the lawsuit continues.
The three Americans said they slept in freezing cold, asbestos-laden cells and “learned to urinate in empty water bottles in order to avoid the beating they would receive whenever they asked to use a bathroom.”
“Furthermore, the men discovered evidence of brain matter, body tissue, and other human remains throughout the area where they were being kept,” the complaint continues.
Hoffman, an attorney with the firm Singer Davis in Virginia Beach, noted that two of his clients were able to listen to and converse with their captors because they speak Arabic fluently.
“The guards bragged to Waiel and Amr about their Iranian military training and the time they had spent with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” the complaint states. “They also told Waiel about how their financial resources, weapons, and equipment came directly from Iran.”
Hoffman could not say for sure if his client spoke the Iraqi dialect of Arabic.
“Their job was to train Iraqi special forces while they were over there, and so I would imagine they spoke the dialect on a regular basis,” he said.
According to the complaint, the State Department became aware as early as 2013 that Iran had plans to use “an obscure Islamist group and its regional proxies” to increase kidnapping operations against Americans.
The men claim that an anonymous State Department official had knowledge that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had received intelligence the week before their kidnapping that “an Iranian-backed Shia militia group wanted to seize American personnel.”
That threat was allegedly never communicated, however, to the trio.
The agency is not a defendant to the complaint, but the men say this same State Department official failed to warn the men because he had been optimistic that negotiations surrounding the Iranian nuclear deal would persuade Iran to restrain the militia.
Hoffman offered no comment on whether he has plans to take legal action against the U.S. government, saying only that he is investigating every possible avenue on behalf of his clients.
Upon their release, the three Americans were forced to thank al-Sadr in a video filmed in front of a large portrait of him.
“The men were also told to warn the United States that the Shia militias were prepared to resist if America tried to invade Iraq again,” the complaint states.
On July 17 – one day after the men’s release – al-Sadr said on his website that his militias would target U.S. individuals.
“This stance was re-affirmed in a televised interview with Muqtada al-Sadr’s official spokesman who stated ‘(w)e are thirst [sic] for Americans’ blood,'” the complaint says.
Hoffman said his clients are doing well as they recover from the experience.
“All three of them are exceedingly resilient guys,” Hoffman said. “They have a long history of public service and they’re not really dissuaded from that.”
Still, the men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are undergoing medical treatment for lingering injuries.
“For instance the way they were bound for extended periods of time caused nerve damage in some of their limbs,” Hoffman said.
“They are doing their best to move on and they are recovering but there’s no doubt that they’re going to be affected by this physically and emotionally and mentally for a long time,” he added.
Neither the Iraqi embassy or the Iranian interest section of the Pakistani embassy in Washington responded to an emailed request for comment about the lawsuit.
Frost, el-Maadawy and Mohamed are seeking punitive damages for their confinement, and pain and suffering – including torture. The men had been working in Iraq for Blue Light LLC, a subcontractor of General Dynamics.