Unfortunately, Foley is not the only hostage to be seized by this group. Foley's murderers have threatened to kill another one, Steven Sotloff, unless the U.S. ends its campaign against them.
The FBI has a pivotal role in rescuing hostages, both in the U.S. and overseas. It investigates disappearances, locates suspects and victims, and handles negotiations. The Wire spoke with two former FBI negotiators to better understand the motivation behind Foley's kidnapping, the attempts to ransom him, and the eventual decision to kill him publicly. They also discussed Sotloff's potential future and what his kidnappers might do next.
ISIL Hostage History and al-Qaeda's Influence
Christopher Voss, a Georgetown University professor who spent 24 years as a lead hostage negotiator for the FBI and is now the CEO of Black Swan Group, a company which applies hostage negotiation strategy to business negotiation, explained that to understand Foley's death, we must review ISIL's hostage strategy over the past few years.
"It is a business, a commodities business, and human beings are the commodity, as horrifying as it is," explained Voss. "In Syria, for some time, they have been trading hostages for a number of things: for weapons, for money, for political influence and for favors."
"That's the way the business evolved in Syria. There were a lot of these splintered terrorist organizations that found themselves with people, but couldn't trade them for money right away or for guns, so they traded amongst themselves. That is how human beings became the commodity. As groups filled out their organizational infrastructure, warehousing and trading people began easier. It became easier to trade them as commodities and to keep them, so they could keep them for longer." In the case of James Foley, he was kept captive for almost two years. The hostages were essentially stored until they were necessary to the advancement of the terrorist organization.
As for ISIS specifically, they took tricks of the human commodity trade from al-Qaeda. "ISIS getting into the ransom business grew out of how al-Qaeda got into it in Baghdad. Once they started killing hostages, they realized people were in a frenzy, willing to pay much higher amounts, much more quickly. Al-Qaeda found themselves making massive amounts of money." Voss noted that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, operating out of western Africa nations, runs a very lucrative ransom/kidnapping program. They have generated $50 million in the last ten years.
Gary Noesner, a retired chief FBI crisis negotiator of thirty years, and author of Stalling For Time, told The Wire in a phone interview that it took several years for al-Qaeda to learn hostages were worth more alive than dead. "In past years, al-Qaeda came to the conclusion that holding and getting ransoms for hostages is quite lucrative. They should not just be thrown away by an execution. We don't have lots of al-Qaeda, Daniel Pearl-style executions anymore."
While ISIL has learned a fair amount from al-Qaeda in terms of hostage strategy, they have taken the brutality a step further. "If you compare ISIS to al-Qaeda, there are some comparisons, but some differences. ISIS has become much more brutal. Its ideology too: convert to Islam or die. By killing Foley, and showing the other journalist, they haven't weakened their position," said Noesner, "They have shown what they are capable of very graphically. Very sadly, it strengthens their position. We see how blood thirsty they are, we see what they are capable of doing."
ISIS Weights the Value of a Hostage
ISIL held onto Foley because he was, in their eyes, a prized possession: an American and a reporter. Voss explained the terrorists weight the public relations value of their hostages against their monetary and trade value. "They hung onto James Foley long enough that they made a decision that his best value was his PR [public relations] value."
Voss also notes that poor timing contributed to Foley's tragic demise: the world's governments are cutting pay on hostage payouts. In July, the New York Times Rukmini Callimachi investigated exactly how much governments spend on freeing hostages. Callimachi determined since 2008, al-Qaeda earned $125 million in revenue on hostage ransom payments. Many European nations paid for hostages, often through back channels, though the U.S. has told them not to. Some nations, like the United Kingdom, have also cut back entirely. At the last G8 summit, countries agreed to stop paying for hostages.
As the world's governments work to move away from paying for hostages, Voss believes terrorist organizations like ISIL will work to find new values for their captives. In some cases, this means exchanging them for prisoners the other nation is holding. In other cases, it means death for publicity or recruitment.
Though Voss is no longer with the FBI, he still follows hostage negotiations closely. He believes Foley's highly publicized death stemmed from the national and political reaction that previous videos have garnered. "The U.S. government is showing itself to be extremely responsive to videos. One of the reasons they gave for the [Bowe] Bergdahl negotiation was a video in which he looked like he was in poor health. [Terrorists] do videos of the executions for the public relations value. The Obama White House is showing they do react to videos. Our adversaries around the world see this and they learn from it. All of this went into their calculation; went into what would bring them the most value for Foley. They looked at trading for weapons, for influence, getting paid for him."
In the video, the murderer also shows journalist Steven Sotloff, while saying, "The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision." President Obama addressed the video in a press conference this week, however, he did not reveal any plans that securing Sotloff's release or respond directly to that threat.
Both Voss and Noesner dissected the phrasing of the executioner's threat for us. "That is very open-ended. It gives them the option to do whatever they want, whenever they want to do it," said Voss, "The threat is very open to ransom discussions. They haven't backed themselves into a corner. They haven't given a timetable. They have left it open for ransom, and in my guess, that is something they would prefer. This is a bargaining type of attack."
Noesner explained the executioner's threat as well. "It is a very, very serious threat. It is not a classic bargaining threat though, because ISIS probably knows that the President and the U.S. cannot alter what they are doing by these threats and actions. If they are asking for money, it is a situation that is more easily negotiated. Unless the other journalist is found and apprehended, it is grim."
Voss also points to this excerpt from the executioner's longer speech:
You are no longer fighting an insurgency; we are an Islamic Army and a state that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide, so effectively, any aggression towards the Islamic State is an aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life who have accepted Islamic Caliphate as their leadership."
"They are very clearly trying to show that this is a rightful punishment because it was decreed by the state," explains Voss. "They need to show they are the power in the Middle East. With the wording, they want to show they are more powerful than Obama."
Earlier this summer, special forces attempted to rescue hostages in Syria, presumably including both Foley and Sotloff. When they arrived, the hostages were no longer at the location. Voss said there is no way to know how long Sotloff could remain in ISIL's hands. "My gut reaction is something will happen with him one way or another in six months or less. They have so carefully worded what they said, they have left themselves in a position to do something in three days or in three months. They have consciously left all options open. Any sort of a change could recalculate what they see as opportunity and value. They really want a response from the U.S. government in some way. They will keep doing videos of some sort or another until they get a response. It is hard to say what is going to happen or what their timeline might be."
While the threat may be harsh and serious, Noesner believes this indicates the success of the airstrikes. "I think they are hoping, without too much realistic expectation, that this will stop the bombing. You could also look at as validating the fact that the bombing is having a profound effect. They have had these hostages for a while, so why are they using them now? Because the bombing is hurting them. They sadly, may very well carry out this threat." U.S. officials announced, since the video was released, that 14 additional airstrikes have been carried out and they will continue for the time being.
Expert negotiator Noesner does not believe the U.S. will negotiate in any capacity, monetarily or otherwise. Obama's speech supports this theory. "With a group like ISIS, I am a believer that negotiations can play an important role, but if you capitulate here, they are just going to ask for more and more and more. I can't see that happening [paying a ransom.] Maybe their family or their employer [would pay.] This does not appear to be about money. You can say we will give you $10 million if you don't kill him, but ISIS would rather use him for a failed attempt to stop the bombing."
Instead of negotiations, we can expect to see public discourse around Foley. "Sometimes the best course of action, you almost have to combat this in a public way, an appeal from his family, an appeal from an intermediary like a moderate Muslim cleric," explained Noesner, "Short of doing what ISIS wants, which won't happen, there's not much the government can do. Sometimes the public sees these groups and will say this is too barbaric, too un-Islamic."
While the U.S. government is highly unlikely to pay a ransom for Sotloff, Voss believes ISIS would be receptive to a "a high offer" from some other party, but not a "long term discussion." Taking into consideration the exorbitantly high ransom request for Foley, Voss speculates the payout for Sotloff would be "well in excess of a million dollars," though the market value for such a hostage would usually be closer to $500,000 to $1 million.
When Foley was held captive, the GlobalPost received a ransom request for $132.5 million (100 million Euros) from ISIL. Voss explains that numbers of this sort are purposefully given when money is of no matter. "That’s a tactic on their part, to ask for a ridiculous amount of money so they can look like they tried to negotiate, but our side was unreasonable. It is a ruse. Its an intentionally nonsubstantive demand. It’s a bit of the equivalent of al-Qaeda in Iraq asking for all U.S. forces to get out. They intentionally ask for something that won't happen."
As a publicity stunt by ISIL, Foley's video had several purposes: a threat against American air strikes, putting fear in the hearts of American citizens, and recruiting new members for the Islamic State.
Unlike many other ISIL beheading videos, this video is censored and edited. The executioner stands behind Foley to kill him, and then the film cuts to black, only to show his body after the fact. By ISIL standards, this shows restraint. "This is a recruiting video. My opinion is they are concerned about making themselves look too brutal. It is a recruitment issue."
Noesner also believes the edit to reduce graphic content was a "purposeful decision. It was screened as not to go a bit too far, as not to have negative consequences."
"One of the reasons al-Qaeda stopped cutting peoples heads off in Iraq in 2004 is that it was so ugly, so brutal, so graphic, it turned people away in the community they were trying to recruit from," said Voss. "The more vicious it is, the more it bothers people who are trying to make up their mind. It is one thing to do mass execution of the adversaries, but they have been looking like blood thirsty animals with these videos and that hurts their recruiting. They are trying to be very calculated, very careful about the power of this video. believe it or not, they are concerned about negative publicity. If there is a group doing publicity, they are trying to understand what is bad for them."
It seems, even the worst, most horrific terrorist organizations, are careful of how their public image looks.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
Hillary Clinton once tweeted that “every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” What about Juanita Broaddrick?
If the ground beneath your feet feels cold, it’s because hell froze over the other day. It happened at 8:02 p.m. on Monday, when The New York Times published an op-ed called “I Believe Juanita.”
Written by Michelle Goldberg, it was a piece that, 20 years ago, likely would have inflamed the readership of the paper and scandalized its editors. Reviewing the credibility of Broaddrick’s claim, Goldberg wrote that “five witnesses said she confided in them about the assault right after it happened,” an important standard in reviewing the veracity of claims of past sex crimes.
But Goldberg’s was not a single snowflake of truth; rather it was part of an avalanche of honesty in the elite press, following a seemingly innocuous tweet by the MSNBC host Chris Hayes. “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is,” he wrote, “it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”
A No. 1 bestseller by a respected physician argues that gluten and carbohydrates are at the root of Alzheimer's disease, anxiety, depression, and ADHD. What to make of the controversial theory?
“If you could make just three simple changes in your life to prevent, or even reverse, memory loss and other brain disorders, wouldn’t you?”
So asks Dr. David Perlmutter, in promotion of his PBS special Brain Change, coming soon to your regional affiliate. Three changes. Simple ones. Wouldn’t you?
The 90-minute special is a companion to Perlmutter’s blockbuster book on how gluten and carbs are destroying our brains. In November it became a New York Times number one bestseller. Since its September release, as Perlmutter told me, “It’s never not been on the bestseller list, frankly.”
“Is it still number one?” I asked. A pause over the phone as he checked. In modern interview style, we were both also on our computers.
How did Andrew Anglin go from being an antiracist vegan to the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist—and how might he be stopped?
On December 16, 2016, Tanya Gersh answered her phone and heard gunshots. Startled, she hung up. Gersh, a real-estate agent who lives in Whitefish, Montana, assumed it was a prank call. But the phone rang again. More gunshots. Again, she hung up. Another call. This time, she heard a man’s voice: “This is how we can keep the Holocaust alive,” he said. “We can bury you without touching you.”
When Gersh put down the phone, her hands were shaking. She was one of only about 100 Jews in Whitefish and the surrounding Flathead Valley, and she knew there were white nationalists and “sovereign citizens” in the area. But Gersh had lived in Whitefish for more than 20 years, since just after college, and had always considered the scenic ski town an idyllic place. She didn’t even have a key to her house—she’d never felt the need to lock her door. Now that sense of security was about to be shattered.
From Eve to Aristotle to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a brief history of looking at half the population and assuming the worst
The picture was striking. The military airplane. The sleeping woman. The outstretched hands. The mischievous smile. The look what I’m getting away with impishness directed at the camera.
On Thursday, Leeann Tweeden, a radio host and former model, came forward with the accusation that Senator Al Franken, of Minnesota, had kissed her against her will during a 2006 USO trip to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In a story posted to the website of Los Angeles’s KABC station, Tweeden shared her experience with Franken. She also shared that photo. “I couldn’t believe it,” she wrote. “He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep.”
I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated.
How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?
I told my husband everything that happened and showed him the picture.
I wanted to shout my story to the world with a megaphone to anyone who would listen, but even as angry as I was, I was worried about the potential backlash and damage going public might have on my career as a broadcaster.
But that was then, this is now. I’m no longer afraid.
The nation wants to eradicate all invasive mammal predators by 2050. Gene-editing technology could help—or it could trigger an ecological disaster of global proportions.
The first thing that hit me about Zealandia was the noise.
I was a 15-minute drive from the center of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, but instead of the honks of horns or the bustle of passersby, all I could hear was birdsong. It came in every flavor—resonant coos, high-pitched cheeps, and alien notes that seemed to come from otherworldly instruments.
Much of New Zealand, including national parks that supposedly epitomize the concept of wilderness, has been so denuded of birds that their melodies feel like a rare gift—a fleeting thing to make note of before it disappears. But Zealandia is a unique 225-hectare urban sanctuary into which many of the nation’s most critically endangered species have been relocated. There, they are thriving—and singing. There, their tunes are not a scarce treasure, but part of the world’s background hum. There, I realized how the nation must have sounded before it was invaded by mammals.
The city of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so citizens could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favorite trees.
"My dearest Ulmus," the message began.
“As I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.”
This is an excerpt of a letter someone wrote to a green-leaf elm, one of thousands of messages in an ongoing correspondence between the people of Melbourne, Australia, and the city’s trees.
Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The “unintended but positive consequence,” as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees, which have received thousands of messages—everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas.
For years, Republican politicians have attacked the mainstream press. With Roy Moore’s Senate bid, they’re facing the consequences.
All news is “fake news”—at least if you’re a diehard Roy Moore supporter.
With sexual misconduct allegations continuing to mount against the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, Moore has defied calls to drop out of the race by advancing an audacious conspiracy theory—that partisan fabulists in the mainstream media are working with his enemies in the political establishment to wage a nefarious smear campaign against him. Not long ago, such claims likely would have backfired. But in the Trump era, anti-press sentiment has reached a fever pitch on the right—something candidates like Moore are eagerly exploiting.
Moore has not directly denied many of the specific allegations. Instead, he has sought to cast himself as the victim of a witch hunt and sow just enough doubt in the stories to muddy the waters in voters’ minds.
The president’s jab at the Democratic senator for sexual harassment calls attention to his silence about Roy Moore—and his own past behavior.
President Trump jabbed at Senator Al Franken in a pair of late-night tweets Thursday, poking at a Democrat whose career is in danger over past sexual harassment, but calling attention to his silence about Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore—and, moreover, to his own history, including his boasts about sexual assault.
On Thursday, radio host Leeann Tweeden wrote about two incidents during a 2006 USO tour to Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. In one case, she said Franken—a Saturday Night Live alumnus and comedian who was not yet a senator—forcibly kissed Tweeden against her will during a rehearsal for a skit. And after returning home from the trip, Tweeden received a CD of photos that included Franken either groping or pretending to grope her over a flak jacket as she slept.
Second Life was supposed to be the future of the internet, but then Facebook came along. Yet many people still spend hours each day inhabiting this virtual realm. Their stories—and the world they’ve built—illuminate the promise and limitations of online life.
Gidge Uriza lives in an elegant wooden house with large glass windows overlooking a glittering creek, fringed by weeping willows and meadows twinkling with fireflies. She keeps buying new swimming pools because she keeps falling in love with different ones. The current specimen is a teal lozenge with a waterfall cascading from its archway of stones. Gidge spends her days lounging in a swimsuit on her poolside patio, or else tucked under a lacy comforter, wearing nothing but a bra and bathrobe, with a chocolate-glazed donut perched on the pile of books beside her. “Good morning girls,” she writes on her blog one day. “I’m slow moving, trying to get out of bed this morning, but when I’m surrounded by my pretty pink bed it’s difficult to get out and away like I should.”
Want to become a florist in Louisiana? A home-entertainment installer in Connecticut? Or a barber anywhere? You’re going to need a license for that—and it’s going to cost you.
In most states, a person who desires to install home-entertainment systems for a living, or as a part-time gig for extra cash, faces relatively few barriers to entry. This is work teenagers routinely do for grandparents after they make a technology purchase. But in Connecticut, a home-entertainment installer is required to obtain a license from the state before serving customers. It costs applicants $185. To qualify, they must have a 12th-grade education, complete a test, and accumulate one year of apprenticeship experience in the field. A typical aspirant can expect the licensing process to delay them 575 days.
These figures are drawn from License to Work, a report released this week by the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that has sued state governments on behalf of numerous small-business owners and members of the working class who’ve faced unduly onerous obstacles while trying to earn a living.