Insiders and administration officials tell Foreign Policy that efforts to free Americans held by the Islamic State are uncoordinated, inconsistent, and crippled by bureaucratic infighting.
- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
Ever since the self-proclaimed Islamic State started beheading American captives on camera two months ago, senior U.S. officials from President Barack Obama on down have insisted that the United States will never grant concessions to terrorists or pay ransoms for Americans’ release, even though the militant group has freed European hostages whose governments were willing to pay millions of dollars in cash.
But the Obama administration’s absolutist position is at odds with what has actually happened when Americans have been kidnapped abroad in the past. The U.S. government has, in fact, arranged ransom payments for Americans held by foreign terrorist groups. Officials are also aware of ransom being paid recently for an American journalist held in Syria. And it’s been the United States’ long-standing policy to keep lines of communications open with terrorists who hold Americans and to find ways of negotiating for their freedom. Under certain circumstances, that can include paying terrorist groups and using money to lure them into the open, where they might be tracked, captured, or killed.
Multiple individuals who have been directly involved in the official and private efforts to free the American hostages held by the Islamic State — including two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were killed over the summer — say the process has been stymied by a malfunctioning government bureaucracy that cannot agree on what the United States’ hostage negotiations policies actually are, including on such thorny issues as ransom payments. Based on long-standing practice and presidential orders, when an American is taken abroad, a network of experienced officials from law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the military, the State Department, and the White House is supposed to snap into place and marshal all the resources of U.S. power to free the person.
But that isn’t happening now. And in the absence of a coherent strategy about how to win the Americans’ release, the process has languished — and so have the final two American hostages: Peter Kassig, a 26-year-old humanitarian aid worker from Indiana, and a female aid worker, who, like Kassig, was kidnapped in Syria. (Foreign Policy isn’t revealing her name, at the request of her family and U.S. officials.)
"No one’s really in charge," said one individual who’s been deeply involved in negotiations for one of the hostages and asked not to be identified because efforts are still underway to free the other two Americans held by the Islamic State. This person, summing up a general frustration shared by many others, said the different government agencies working on the hostages’ cases don’t appear to be on the same page or even to have the same reading of what U.S. law allows.
Privately, U.S. officials acknowledge that their own lines of communication have become crossed and that family members aren’t always receiving a clear message or frequent enough updates on what the government is doing to free their loved ones. In part to remedy that, Obama met personally in recent weeks with the families of the two Americans still held by the Islamic State, according to an individual with knowledge of the meeting.
Even if the United States wanted to negotiate with the Islamic State, it appears to have no viable back channels to the group, which lately seems to be far more interested in butchering Americans than in taking money to set them free. Former officials who criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the hostage cases acknowledged that the efforts were hamstrung by a lack of good intelligence inside Syria, where the hostages are believed to be held amid the rubble and chaos of a three-year-long civil war. No one doubts that U.S. officials want to see the Americans freed, and those close to the efforts don’t blame the government for the Americans’ deaths. But efforts to win the hostages’ release have fallen short, and time is running out.
This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen people, including current and former senior U.S. officials with many years of experience in hostage negotiation, as well as others who have worked on the cases of the Americans known to be held by the Islamic State.
The debate among government officials and the hostages’ family members has broken out largely over the question of how to negotiate with the Islamic State, and the risky proposition of whether to pay ransoms or make other concessions to the militant group, which has at various times demanded money as well as the release of accused or convicted terrorists held by the United States.
On one side are the White House, the National Security Council, and the State Department, which oppose ransom payments and believe that they encourage militants to kidnap Americans. The fact that more European citizens, whose countries will pay for their freedom, are taken suggests that a no-ransom policy protects U.S. citizens abroad, these officials say.
"I think the U.S. government remains absolutely committed to the notion that we will not provide funding for terrorist organizations — that we believe that only creates perverse incentives for those terrorist organizations going forward, and a source of funding," Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters after the Islamic State released a video showing Foley’s murder.
The White House is so forcefully opposed to ransom payments that when Foley and Sotloff’s families raised the issue, a senior member of the NSC staff who handles counterterrorism issues felt obliged to tell them that they could be prosecuted if they attempted to pay a ransom for their children.
"The law is clear that ransom payments to designated individuals or entities, such as ISIL, are prohibited," said Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for the NSC. "It is also a matter of long-standing policy that the U.S. does not grant concessions to hostage takers. Doing so would only put more Americans at risk of being taken captive. That is what we convey publicly and what we convey privately."
On the other side of the argument, sources say, are the Justice Department and the FBI, which is the lead investigative agency when Americans are kidnapped abroad. Current and former officials stressed that no American has ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom and never would be. Several former law enforcement officials described the warning from the NSC staffer as "out of bounds," and said it could undermine the trust that the families place in the FBI agents assigned to handle their family members’ cases.
"The Department of Justice [which decides whom to prosecute] would just as soon this guy keep his mouth shut," said a former law enforcement official who maintains ties to people working on the cases. The families of Foley and Sotloff have said that they were shocked and offended by the official’s remarks, and some U.S. officials share their sentiment. A spokesperson for the FBI didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Contrary to the currently stated policy, the FBI has long taken a more nuanced approach to ransom payments. "They will engage with a family if the family chooses to move forward and use the payment of ransom to free their loves ones. The FBI will assist them," said a former government official who has worked extensively on hostage negotiations.
And that has happened at least once. In 2002, the FBI helped to raise $300,000 that was paid for the release of Martin and Gracia Burnham, Christian missionaries who were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group, while celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary at a resort in the Philippines, according to two individuals with knowledge of the case. At the time, the FBI, U.S. intelligence agencies, and the military were trying to find the Burnhams in the Philippines’ dense jungle, and the ransom payment was seen as one way to gain some insights into how Abu Sayyaf moved its money and to potentially locate the hostages.
A former U.S. official said that the FBI took steps to obscure its role, and that Abu Sayyaf never knew the U.S. government was involved in the ransom effort. The Burnham family has acknowledged paying a ransom, but they accused Abu Sayyaf of reneging on the deal. Gracia Burnham was ultimately rescued by Filipino commandos who’d been trained by the United States. A shootout with Abu Sayyaf ensued, and Burnham’s husband and another hostage were killed.
The U.S. government’s decision to facilitate a ransom payment, and not to stand in the families’ way, was strikingly at odds with the Obama administration’s current stance. And it illustrates how hostage negotiation policy has shifted since the administration of George W. Bush.
Not all Bush-era officials thought paying a ransom to Abu Sayyaf was a wise idea. ABC News reported that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld opposed the move. But the FBI, the White House, and the State Department thought it was worth taking the risk if a ransom meant the Burnhams could go free. And with good reason: Abu Sayyaf had a history of releasing captives from other countries when their families or governments paid.
But officials were also emboldened by a new U.S. policy on hostage negotiations, which Bush had signed just a few months earlier, in February 2002, and that remains in effect today. That document, known as the National Security Presidential Directive 12, represented a subtle but important change in the official position, from making no deals with terrorists whatsoever to taking each hostage’s case on its own merits. The document is classified, but people who’ve read it said that it allows ransom payments under particular circumstances.
The government can help pay ransoms to a terror group if it thinks the transaction will yield some intelligence about the kidnappers, such as their identity, their location, or how they move their money. Such information could be used to locate and kill the terrorists, capture them and bring them to justice, or cut off their financial networks. Any of those actions could help prevent the terrorists from kidnapping more Americans.
But a ransom cannot be paid in a one-time deal with the sole purpose of freeing an American. There has to be some larger strategic purpose in mind, which apparently is often hard to find. The Burnhams’ case is the only known example of the U.S. government directly helping to pay a ransom.
The presidential directive is also the government’s playbook for how to respond when Americans are taken hostage abroad. It spells out the roles and responsibilities of each agency, from the CIA to the FBI to the State Department and White House, as well as the military. It also directs how sensitive intelligence, such as tips from spies or intercepted phone calls and emails, is to be shared across the various agencies, so that all parties to the cases are kept fully informed.
The document gave rise to a so-called "hostage working group" at the White House that was first chaired by William McRaven, then a Navy captain assigned to handle counterterrorism matters on the NSC staff — the same position now occupied by the man who offended the Foleys and the Sotloffs. McRaven went on to lead the Joint Special Operations Command and oversaw the successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. He retired this year, with the rank of admiral, and was selected as the next chancellor of the University of Texas System.
The White House group led to the creation of a parallel effort in Iraq, which focused on Americans kidnapped by insurgents and terrorists there. Former officials who worked on hostage issues both in Washington and Iraq said that the presidential directive let them share classified intelligence with each other, which was essential when kidnappings and murders of Americans became a more common occurrence in Iraq in the spring of 2004. "That was when the shit hit the fan in Iraq," said a former U.S. official who worked on cases of captive Americans.
The crisis began in March of that year with the killing of four U.S. contractors from the private security firm Blackwater, who were beaten, burned, and hanged from a bridge in Fallujah. Then, in May, a video surfaced showing American contractor Nicholas Berg being beheaded while wearing an orange jumpsuit, similar to the ones worn by detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and that are now donned by Islamic State captives before they’re killed on camera.
Back in Washington, the White House hostage working group went into overdrive, meeting at least once a week, according to Dane Egli, who ran the group from 2004 to 2006. "It was a dynamic process," Egli said. Officials from the intelligence agencies, the State Department, the FBI, and the military were involved. Cases ranged from Americans held by insurgents and terrorists to contractors who’d gone missing to soldiers who’d been captured or had disappeared.
Egli said that the working group helped to coordinate the 2005 rescue of Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL who was the lone survivor of a U.S. attack on Taliban militants in Afghanistan. The same year, the group also worked on a Delta Force rescue of American contractor Roy Hallums, who’d been taken hostage in Iraq. Neither case involved a ransom payment, but the missions showed that the working group was able to work across agency lines to share intelligence, coordinate rescues, and bring Americans home, Egli said.
After 2006, the rash of kidnappings in Iraq slowed, and so did the work of the hostage working group. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq and Berg’s suspected murderer, was killed by U.S. forces. Al Qaeda central turned its attention away from the "kidnapping-and-murder business," as one former official put it, and concentrated on kidnapping for ransom, particularly in North Africa. That remains a lucrative source of revenue for the group.
Today, the hostage working group meets less frequently. And former members who handled cases during the Iraq crisis have moved on to new jobs. That’s one reason, former officials say, why the bureaucratic process today has become so bogged down. "There just isn’t a deep bench of people who know how to work these issues," a former official said.
The group continues to meet and has "broad interagency participation," according to a senior administration official. "While the [group] generally convenes in person on a monthly basis, there is a continuous collaboration and discussion among [group] members on a daily basis. There are also periodic phone conferences and video teleconferences to address specific issues as they arise."
But the U.S. government doesn’t need to manage hostage cases on its own. Officials can stand aside or turn a blind eye when other parties intervene on behalf of American hostages. That may have happened when American journalist Peter Theo Curtis was set free in August by al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria.
According to one government official, as well as another source who has direct knowledge of Curtis’s case, a ransom was paid for his release. And though it’s unclear by whom, suspicion has focused on the government of Qatar, which has strong ties to Nusra.
Two other individuals with direct knowledge of Curtis’s case said the Qatari government was involved in negotiations with Nusra for Curtis’s release. Neither person had any knowledge of a ransom payment, and though they said they couldn’t rule it out, they doubted it had been paid. A spokesperson for the State Department denied that the United States paid a ransom, and administration officials told the Qataris they shouldn’t pay one either.
But Qatar has been a ransom broker for European hostages, including those held by al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch. An official involved in Curtis’s case said the negotiations weren’t handled by the Qataris directly, but through yet another militant group in Syria, which acted as a kind of cutout.
Curtis’s relatives said in an interview with the New York Times that they’d been told no ransom was paid, but that they weren’t privy to all of the details surrounding Curtis’s release. And it was only after the government of Qatar became involved that negotiations noticeably picked up speed.
"Our family wants to thank the country of Qatar in a big way," Amy Rosen, a cousin, told the Times. "Every person that our family dealt with in Qatar said that under no circumstances would a ransom be paid — and that this was something the U.S. government had requested, and they had agreed to," she said. "But at the same time, we don’t pretend to know everything that happened." The Curtis family, through a spokesperson, declined a request for an interview.
The United States also has some history of letting other countries pay for an American hostage’s release while preserving the official line that this doesn’t amount to ransom. In 2011, just before the government of Iran released two American hikers imprisoned there, it fined them $500,000 each, a sum that was reportedly paid by the government of Oman. A third hiker had been freed in 2010 after a $500,000 "bail" was paid, also reportedly by Oman. After all the hostages were released, Obama publicly thanked the Sultan of Oman for the work he’d done to get the hikers freed, along with the governments of Iraq and Switzerland, the United States’ primary diplomatic conduit to Tehran. Obama made no mention of any payments by Oman, and officials haven’t confirmed that the country paid for the Americans’ release.
Administration officials have not been deaf to the plight of the Islamic State’s hostages. "I would characterize my own contact with the government as always very supportive and concerned and with a genuine desire to be helpful," said Philip Balboni, the president and chief executive officer of GlobalPost, where Foley worked as a freelancer. Balboni was deeply involved in efforts to secure Foley’s release, including sharing leads on Foley’s possible whereabouts with the government, and helping to raise money for a possible ransom payment.
Another individual who has worked on one of the hostage cases also said that senior government officials in the White House and the State Department had sat down with family members and assured them that the administration was working on their loved ones’ cases. But those meetings didn’t result in any new urgency or noticeable change in strategy. "They were very generous with their time, but it didn’t help," this person said.
The White House did start giving family members more attention after the video showing Foley’s beheading was posted online, several individuals said. Since then, the White House has been more responsive to family members’ phone calls and inquiries. The administration has also been noticeably more attentive since the Foley and Sotloff families went public about the NSC staff official, who, answering a direct question from the families, said that the government could prosecute anyone who paid a ransom.
For its part, the White House is in an awkward position. It’s not the official point of contact for hostage families — that job is performed by the FBI and the State Department. But frustrated by the lack of progress, families have sought out an audience wherever they can find it, including at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Our hearts go out to these families. We understand the grief and the frustration families feel when we are not able to bring their family members home," said Hayden, the NSC spokeswoman. "We do not discuss the details of our conversations with families of those held hostage, but I can say that the administration’s goal has always been to do whatever we can within our capabilities and within the bounds of the law to assist families to bring their loved ones home."
Kate Brannen contributed reporting.