For six years, a cone of silence protected the life of a New Zealander held hostage by a brutal regime.

Media across New Zealand held back - as did outlets around the world - after the family of Louisa Akavi received a chilling email from inside Islamic State. Akavi's terrorist kidnappers told her Porirua family she would be killed if her 2013 capture was made public.

Akavi had dedicated her life to the needs of the world's most vulnerable. She set out as a young nurse in the mid-1980s, disenchanted with medical bureaucracy in search of places where red tape didn't get in the way of helping people.

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First came Malaysia and the refugee camps set up for those known as the "Vietnamese boat people". Re-unified Vietnam created a flood of need from 1978 through the next two decades as three million people fled in often decrepit vessels to seek life elsewhere.

This was Akavi's introduction to the humanitarian work which would guide her life, working for the International Committee of the Red Cross. When she arrived in Malaysia in 1987, thousands of people had landed by boat across South East Asia. They had survived war, Vietnam's "education camps" and an ocean voyage which claimed thousands of others.

From Malaysia, Akavi went to Somalia amid the chaos of a collapsing government and an international effort to maintain peace. The rule of law collapsed and chaos ensued, only barely moderated by United Nations intervention.

By then, Akavi was in Bosnia. She told the Kapiti Observer in 2010 of driving into the city of Tuzla - under bombardment - with a stream of men, woman and children fleeing in the other direction.

"It's winter, it's snowing, it's cold," she recalled. "And I see on the road a child's doll, and then I see some shoes, and then I see all of these families, women and children with their heads covered and vests, probably the thickest vests they own, wearing boots and no gloves, their hands are bare, carrying everything they own."

Akavi was heading into the danger those people were fleeing.

Sheryl Thayer, a New Zealand nurse working for the Red Cross, was killed in Chechnya. Photo / supplied
Sheryl Thayer, a New Zealand nurse working for the Red Cross, was killed in Chechnya. Photo / supplied

In Chechnya in December 1996, Akavi survived a brush with death. Men armed with silenced weapons entered the hospital where she and other ICRC health workers were sleeping.

Akavi survived while fellow New Zealand nurse Sheryl Thayer was among the six who were shot dead.


And then came Ethiopia, and then this century's disasters and wars. In 2003, she went into Iraq, working as she often did under the protection of armed guards, restocking medical supplies and travelling under armed guard.

Afghanistan came next, with Akavi working to promote health and hygiene among local women.

Other missions have seen her working in refugee camps in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Iran, and amidst those in poverty or prison in the Solomon Islands, and in the Philippines.

"It does become a little bit hard, but it is the small things," she told the Kapiti Observer in 2010. "It's working with the national staff who do the best they can. I don't know why I still do it. It's something I do well.

"I know that I can make a difference, a small difference."

New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi was working on the dangerous frontline in Damascus, Syria, when she was kidnapped. Photo / Getty
New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi was working on the dangerous frontline in Damascus, Syria, when she was kidnapped. Photo / Getty

By August 2013, she was listed as working in Damascus, Syria. It was the world's latest hell-hole and like so many places before, Akavi was there.

On October 10, she went into north-west Syria with a team of others to assess the need in the area and deliver medical supplies. It was known to be dangerous - armed guards escorted the health workers.

At that stage, the conflict in Syria had spun out of control. It was a multi-sided struggle defeating any of the combatants or major powers in the region attempts to contend with the rising of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

On October 13, Akavi's group was returning to Damascus when the group was intercepted and fired upon. Akavi and five other Red Cross staff, along with a Red Crescent worker, were kidnapped.

Three of the aid workers were released the following day. The others have not been heard of publicly since.

In Akavi's case, at least, there was a reason for that silence. In her case, it emerged, her life depended on it.

It is unknown exactly who took Akavi and the others - Syria had descended into true chaos with a myriad of actors, shifting allegiances and converts from neighbouring and distant countries flocking to ISIL's Islamic state.

It is believed, though, she was held for a period by Mohammed Emwazi, the British citizen and Islamic State extremist known as Jihadi John. Emwazi was one of the cluster of foreign Islamic State fighters called "The Beatles" by captives because of their English accents.

He was more notoriously behind the beheading of a number of hostages and other captives of ISIL.

Mohammed Emwazi, also known as Jihadi John, an ISIS convert who executed hostages. Photo / supplied
Mohammed Emwazi, also known as Jihadi John, an ISIS convert who executed hostages. Photo / supplied

A highly-placed source, who has seen intelligence briefings relating to the hostages, said in 2015: "She was being held... is being held by the same people who have been responsible for the executions."

Her situation was described as "pretty grim" and her chance of release "slim".

It is understood one of the first interactions between the New Zealand woman and her Islamic State captors was to obtain an email address through which contact was made with her family.

The Herald has been told that her captors made contact with the woman's family in New Zealand through the email address demanding a ransom and warning that media coverage of her situation would lead to her death.

Her family reached out to government, which the Herald understands formed the view she would be killed if she was publicly identified.

As a result, her situation became a closely held secret. Even her nationality was withheld.

It didn't stop word leaking out, in New Zealand media circles or in foreign diplomatic and media circles focused on the ongoing crisis in Syria.

When media contacted officials for comment on Akavi, Foreign minister Murray McCully worked fast to speak with senior editorial staff and spell out the potentially fatal consequences publication could have for the nurse.

There were cases where offshore media, unaware of the threat faced by Akavi, published her name and nationality. Such was the government's focus on her wellbeing, Five Eyes partners were ready to respond to any publication and to seek cooperation.

One such episode saw the New York Times publish Akavi's name in an online display showing how many hostages had been taken. In that case, the Herald has been told, her name was picked up by a US intelligence agency which alerted New Zealand. McCully, with support from US intelligence, was able to convince the newspaper to remove her name from its website.

Sporadic negotiations over the offered ransom began between the International Committee of the Red Cross and her captors. Ransoms had proved lucrative for ISIL, with a United Nations' terrorism report estimating in November 2014 that the terror group had earned $45-60m in ransoms over the previous 12 months.

US Aid Worker Kayla Mueller, who was held hostage with Louisa Akavi, died in 2014.
US Aid Worker Kayla Mueller, who was held hostage with Louisa Akavi, died in 2014.

There was no easy solution to Akavi's kidnapping. Efforts at negotiations went nowhere, although remained a constant prospect.

And there was also a military option, as intelligence filtered in on where Akavi and other hostages were held. On July 4, 2014, US President Barack Obama authorised a special forces assault on an abandoned oil refinery at Uqarishah (Ukarishah) near Raqqa.

Along with Akavi, the US had intelligence she was being held with other high-value hostages, including British journalist John Cantlie, US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, US aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig, along with British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.

The assault came too late. The special forces units found the refinery abandoned, engaging in a fierce firefight against ISIL troops as they searched the empty facility. Obama later said the rescue mission "probably missed them by a day or two".

The failed rescue attempts and the next month's US air strikes on ISIL-held territory in Iraq have both been linked to the brutality which followed.

ISIL embarked on an orgy of executions, many of which were carried out by Emwazi (later killed in a drone strike in November 2015). Videos showing the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff emerged in the months following. Haines, Henning and Kassig were also executed.

The spree of violence, which saw other brutal executions, sparked fears for Akavi's safety.

Then, at the end of the month of horror, there was cause for hope. Positive intelligence emerged of Akavi's continued survival and detention with high-value hostages, including Mueller. The information was filtered back to New Zealand and constantly monitored by New Zealand's Special Operations Command - the specialised structure set up to support the elite NZ Special Air Service.

Then, later, came further details. The events can be pieced together through the recollection of hostages held with her, and from reporting by Sean Naylor, a writer for Foreign Policy.

ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching in 2014. Photo / Getty
ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching in 2014. Photo / Getty

Between August and October 2014, an opportunity for escape presented itself. Mueller had by then been taken under the control of ISIL senior leader Abu Sayyaf, who subjected her to repeated rapes. Islamic State's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also named as being present and as having raped Mueller.

A fellow captive was a teenage girl from Iraq's Yazidi religious minority, a community on which ISIL had preyed and forced into sex slavery.

The girl of 13-14 years saw the chance to escape, urging Mueller to come with her. She later told America's ABC News Mueller replied: "No, because I am American. If I escape with you, they will do everything to find us again. It is better for you to escape alone. I will stay here."

In Foreign Policy, Naylor quoted sources as saying Mueller rejected the chance to escape because Akavi - who wasn't named - was in poor health. Akavi and Mueller had been held together "for a significant amount of time", he wrote, and "she did not want to abandon the other hostage, who wasn't up to the rigours of attempting to flee".

The teenager found her way to a Special Operations headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan where she was repeatedly quizzed by intelligence officers. Information she relayed was passed to New Zealand and was compelling.

Mueller was killed in February 2015 - ISIL claimed a Jordanian air strike caused her death although US officials have never accepted the story. Naylor reported intelligence officers were told a few months after Mueller's death that Akavi was still alive although being treated for "minor" shrapnel wounds. It was a "pretty vague" account, he wrote.

By the end of 2015, Akavi's captivity is believed to have taken on a new dimension after the wounding of al-Baghdadi in an air strike. It was this attack - or complications from the injuries of this attack - which intelligence officials believed may have led to ISIL using Akavi for Baghdadi's medical care. It is unclear when that care - if intelligence assessments are accurate - began.

If she was kept with al-Baghdadi, as intelligence analysts believe, then she would have been moved often. His survival was dependent on being constantly mobile and exercising extreme communications discipline. Intelligence specialists working on her recovery were keenly aware how careful and sophisticated ISIL was with communications, when compared to the relatively lax Al Qaeda.

Over this time, information about Akavi became increasingly scant. It left intelligence agencies attempting to track her movements little to work on.

Efforts to track Akavi continued with New Zealand calling on its Five Eyes relationships. Some reports continued to come through, sporadically, over the following years.

New Zealand's efforts to find Akavi happened under the codename Operation Rocks. The Herald has chosen to withhold detailed, operational information relating to intelligence about Akavi and about the New Zealand recovery effort. Sources who provided the information were always concerned it could impact on Akavi's safety, and wanted no detail public until she was confirmed alive or dead.

Jacinda Ardern was briefed on the hostage situation when she became Prime Minister in 2017. Photo /Getty
Jacinda Ardern was briefed on the hostage situation when she became Prime Minister in 2017. Photo /Getty

It is possible to say Akavi's plight was a constant concern at the highest levels of MFAT, NZDF, the intelligence agencies and the Office of the Prime Minister.

When former Prime Minister Sir John Key considered sending troops to Iraq for training, part of the consideration was whether it could lead to reprisals against Akavi. In the end, he decided her plight could not dictate or impact on New Zealand's response.

And when Jacinda Ardern took over as Prime Minister, one of the first top secret briefings she received was a rundown on Akavi's captivity and the latest intelligence on where and how she was being held. She was first formally briefed on the plan on November 3 2017.

During the period of her captivity, Islamic State's geographical caliphate peaked and then ebbed before completely collapsing.

As the battle sprawled across years, New Zealand dedicated first a handful and then a dozen military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel to the Middle East. Those sent included NZSAS troopers, although it was always envisioned coalition nation special forces would take the lead if a military solution became possible.

The presence of the NZSAS staff, though, meant Akavi would have been met by friendly and familiar voices shortly after being freed.

A possible rescue mission was discussed in early 2017 when Akavi's location was identified but it never went ahead. The reasons are unknown but may have included the expectation it had a low chance of success and a high chance of casualties.

The collapse of the caliphate led to an increased focus by those involved in Operation Rocks. The ongoing disintegration of IS created greater risk and increased opportunity.

It included consideration of a payment to secure her release through a third-party. Such a move needed careful legal consideration with New Zealand law and international policy forbidding payments to terrorists. The entire New Zealand operation had been framed and supported by constant legal advice from the NZ Defence Force and MFAT.

Coalition partners had negotiated deals through cut-outs - finding a middleman who didn't fit the definition of a terrorist yet was known to be willing to deal with those holding hostages.

Obama had issued a Presidential Policy Directive 29 three years earlier which relaxed the firm rule about negotiating payments to recover hostages. It stated "when appropriate the United States may assist private efforts to communicate with hostage-takers whether directly or through public or private intermediaries…to secure the safe recovery of the hostage".

The work of the Kiwi team inside Iraq - and, on occasion, in Syria - led to improved intelligence on Akavi's whereabouts and a greater appreciation of ways of securing her safety.

Mark Taylor aka Mohammad Daniel the Kiwi jihadist after being captured by Khurdish forces in Qamishli, Syria. Photo / AP
Mark Taylor aka Mohammad Daniel the Kiwi jihadist after being captured by Khurdish forces in Qamishli, Syria. Photo / AP

The Operation Rocks team worked to find advantage in any opportunity. When so-called Kiwi Jihadi Mark Taylor was captured, he was visited and interviewed in the Kurdish jail in which he was held. While considered highly unlikely the pair had come into contact, it was thought ISIL's English-speaking community might have passed gossip and information about Westerners. There was no direct information about Akavi.

By early February 2019, the Coalition fighting Islamic State had all but destroyed the geographical caliphate, reducing its territory from spanning two nations and 10 million people to a town called Baghouz (Baghuz) which sat in a crook of the Euphrates River on the border of Iraq and Syria.

The town became Islamic State's last stand, and it was also considered the most likely location for Akavi. It was believed she had moved - or been moved - with IS leadership as it withdrew along the Euphrates to the border town.

That month, word was passed from inside the town that high-ranking members of Islamic State wanted out. They hoped to trade their way to freedom by trading three named hostages.

One was Cantlie, the British journalist held since November 2012. There was Jesuit priest Paolo Dall'Oglio, not seen since July 29, 2013 when he drove into the desert to talk to ISIL about the treatment of Christians in its Islamic State.

And, they said, there was Akavi. She, too, would be freed.

The possibility sent a thrill through those working to have her freed. The offer was obviously self-serving, yet couldn't be dismissed as a fantasy or fraud.

Those involved in attempting to recover Akavi believe it was highly likely to have been real at the time it was made, even if it wasn't repeated in the month since.

The fall of Baghouz marked the final collapse of the ISIS leadership. Photo /Getty
The fall of Baghouz marked the final collapse of the ISIS leadership. Photo /Getty

Baghouz fell in March, but for a strip of cliffs riddled with caves along the Euphrates. Air strikes continued on this last bastion as aid efforts attempted to manage the thousands of people who poured out of the battle zone.

In all the chaos, even as the dust settled, there was no sign of Akavi.

There were suspicions the leadership had escaped the town into Iraq, creating the possibility she had been taken along. There was speculation she had been killed in Baghouz, a victim of the ferocious bombing campaign. And there was the possibility she had walked out with the thousands of other women, wrapped in a burkha to seek refuge and shelter in one of the many camps set up to provide aid.

There was doubt Akavi would retain enough of herself to make her identity known and to ask for help. The years of captivity, exposure to ISIL's brutalising depravity and living at the centre of a constant war zone was expected to have taken its toll.

Hope soared at one stage when there was a reported sighting in one of the refugee camps. It was a false hope - the woman believed to have been Akavi turned out to be Iraqi.

A source involved in the recovery effort said Operation Rock's mission focus never wavered. It has continued its work, unwavering in the view that its efforts and Akavi's survival are best served by silence.

For years, the ICRC has been united in this approach although it has wavered in recent months. The decision by the New York Times to publish prompted the ICRC to release a statement.

Dominik Stillhart, director of operations for the ICRC said the organisation had decided to go public with Akavi's case because it hoped it would lead to information on her whereabouts after the fall of Baghouz.

"We have not spoken publicly before today because from the moment Louisa and the others were kidnapped, every decision we made was to maximise the chances of winning their freedom. With that goal in mind, we have long decided not to share details in the hopes this approach would lead to a positive result. With Islamic State group (ISg) having lost the last of its territory, we felt it was now time to speak out.

Following the fall of the last (ISIL) stronghold in Syria, we hope there will be new opportunities for us to learn more about Louisa's situation. But we also fear there is an extra risk of losing track of her in the aftermath. That is why we are calling for any information that could provide more leads into her whereabouts and wellbeing. We remind everyone that she is a victim of a kidnapping, and a hostage who has been held for many years.

"We call on anyone with information to please come forward. If our colleagues are still being held, we call for their immediate and unconditional release."

The public statement occurred despite lingering concerns by the New Zealand government. The ICRC hoped that by making it clear it was still looking for Akavi, she would come forward or someone would report seeing her. After years of being able to track Akavi's rough movements through eyewitness reports from those in defeated Islamic State territories, it had nowhere to go.

Prospects included that she was still being held and had been spirited away elsewhere in Syria, or to Iraq or Turkey.

The worst scenario was that she had been killed in that final onslaught on Baghouz. One source said the identification of the dead was "haphazard" in the aftermath of that battle and sometimes there could be few remains to work from.

The Red Cross and the Government both talked to Akavi's family to advise them it was set to become public. That took place in Foreign Minister Winston Peters' office last week.

The Operation Rocks team remains silent.

Said one source involved: "We want her to see her family again."