President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday that the families of US hostages held by militant groups overseas would not be punished for trying to pay ransom to win their release.
The decision represents a significant shift in the government’s approach toward dealing with terrorist organisations. In the past, families considering sending money to terrorist organisations like ISIS or Al Qaeda in exchange for their loved ones’ release were met with consternation from administration officials.
Families offering to pay ransom could face criminal prosecution, officials told them, in accordance with the US government’s strict “no-concessions” to terrorists policy. (Though, as Obama noted on Wednesday, no family had ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom.)
We are now learning more about the families of James Foley, Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and Theo Padnos, thanks to a piece from Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker. Those families, frustrated with the government’s inaction in the wake of their children’s kidnappings, teamed up with a 62-year-old media mogul to change this policy for good.
The United States government’s staunch policy of not paying ransom to terrorists for hostages was questioned in the aftermath of the death of James Foley, a US journalist kidnapped in 2011 and killed by the Islamic State last August.
“They kept telling us to do nothing,” Foley’s mother, Diane, told The New Yorker. “And telling us that our kid is their highest priority. Which we didn’t believe.”
Knowing the US doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, the families — who later adopted the name Parents of American Hostages in Syria — said they hoped their children’s kidnappers were Syrian government forces and not one of the rebel groups fighting the regime. At least then US officials might work to strike a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for their release.
Their independent investigations — spearheaded by the well-connected Atlantic Media owner David Bradley — soon revealed that was not the case. Their children had been kidnapped by the Islamic State, and the US government was insisting they tell no one. The families soon learned of each other, however, finding solace in a shared struggle.
“They traded information about avenues they had explored and people they had approached — N.G.O. workers, State Department officials, F.B.I. agents — and they rebuked themselves for not having set up emergency contacts for their sons, and for not getting their digital passwords,” Lawrence Wright writes in The New Yorker.
“As each learned more about the other’s son, they saw how much the men had in common. What good friends they will be when this is all over, they often said.”
The families wrote a group letter to the White House asking the government to do more. “This is a moment of opportunity,” the letter said, according to The New Yorker. “We have knowledge of the groups that are holding our children; we have knowledge of their location and the motives of their captors; we have examples of successful releases facilitated by foreign governments.”
The fact that French, Spanish, and Italian hostages were being released by ISIS rather steadily gave the American families hope, and emboldened them to ask the administration to do more.
The FBI got involved, but its efforts were limited.
“The F.B.I. called me once a week from Washington, every Tuesday between three-thirty and four o’clock, without fail, just to see if I had information for them,” Art Sotloff told the New Yorker. “Not to give me information. After three or four phone calls, I just let them go to voice mail.“
Even so, the FBI made it clear to the families that though they would happily take any information they had, the relationship could not extend any further since the families did not have the required security clearance.
The government’s position at that time was clear.
“We feel very strongly that it is not the right policy for governments to support the payment of ransom to terrorist organisations,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, replied when asked last year whether the US needs to “rethink” its approach toward paying ransoms.
The families, too, had mixed feelings when it came to sending money to terrorists. The Foleys had already started fundraising and the Sotloffs were considering doing the same, but the Kassigs and the Muellers struggled with the moral implications of funding terrorists.
The issue of ransom payments aside, Barak Barfi — Steven Sotloff’s best friend and an advisor to the families — has insisted that the White House effectively abandoned the hostages at a crucial moment.
“The White House did not do enough to rescue the four Americans,” Barfi wrote in a recent Foreign Policy op-ed. “During Steve’s imprisonment, it rarely worked with the hostages’ families, kept them in the dark, and was essentially passive, rather than discussing ways to secure their release.”
The government’s latest policy shift allowing families to try and raise ransom — while an important concession — is too little, too late, Barfi noted.
“If the administration had employed its vast intelligence network,” Barfi added, “it likely could have saved the Americans.”
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