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.
Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner promised a long, slow, even dull inquiry into election interference—an implicit rebuke to the House’s ever-more-chaotic process.
As Tolstoy would have written if he were a national-security reporter, all dysfunctional committees are dysfunctional in their own way, while all functional committees are frustratingly tight-lipped.
Or something like that. In any case, a Wednesday press conference by Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, presented a glaring contrast to the House’s own intelligence committee, which seems to spin into greater chaos daily. The pair emphasized bipartisanship, process, and patience, offering little in the way of factual revelations while implicitly rebuking the House Intelligence Committee.
The Trump administration may be accelerating "Easternization," argues Gideon Rachman.
Next week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to the United States to meet Donald Trump for the first time. But according to Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, power is flowing in the opposite direction. Rachman is far from the first analyst to argue that China and other Asian nations are rising while the Western world declines, nor is he the first to cite the now-familiar statistics about China’s ballooning economy and unparalleled manufacturing might. His contribution is to help explain some of the most confounding developments of the day—from the Middle East’s descent into anarchy to the ascent of populist politicians in the West to the emergence of nostalgia as a political force—through his theory of the “Easternization” of international affairs.
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Tuesday was not a good day for America’s hard-charging white men. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began his day on the set of Fox & Friends, where he was asked about remarks that Representative Maxine Waters made Monday evening on the floor of Congress about Trump supporters and patriotism. Instead of responding to Waters’s comments, O’Reilly opted to focus on something else. “I didn’t hear a word she said,” O’Reilly said, interrupting his hosts. “I was looking at the James Brown wig.”
In response, there were loud barks of (male) laughter on the set.
O’Reilly continued: “If we have a picture of James—it’s the same one.”
The laughter continued.
Host Ainsley Earhardt interjected, “No, I gotta defend her on that,” she said, “You can’t go after a woman’s looks. I think she’s very attractive.”
The program is based on the idea that habit-forming behaviors start in childhood.
At a Berlin day-care center, the children packed away all the toys: the cars, the tiny plastic animals, the blocks and Legos, even the board games and most of the art materials. They then stood in the empty classroom and looked at their two instructors.
“What should I do now?” my son, then 5, asked.
He did not get an answer to this question for a long time. His day-care center, or kita, was starting a toy-free kindergarten project. For several weeks, the toys would disappear, and the teachers wouldn’t tell the children what to play. While this practice may seem harsh, the project has an important pedagogic goal: to improve the children’s life skills to strengthen them against addictive behaviors in the future.
A new poll suggests a majority back the president’s unsubstantiated accusations about former President Obama.
An overwhelming majority of Republicans—at 74 percent—believe it’s likely that Donald Trump was wiretapped or otherwise subject to government surveillance while he was running for president, according to a CBS News poll released on Wednesday.
The results suggest that Republican voters have largely accepted the president’s claim—which he first made earlier this month in a tweet—that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. That’s despite the fact that there is no evidence to substantiate his charge, which PolitiFact has labeled “false.” So why do so many Republicans appear to believe the president if there’s no concrete evidence to back him up? A few factors help explain the polling result.
The Sony World Photography Awards has announced the winners of its Open categories and National categories for 2017.
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And they're pushing the rest of us toward a “Potemkin internet,” a mere shell of the web we know today.
I’m going to confess an occasional habit of mine, which is petty, and which I would still enthusiastically recommend to anyone who frequently encounters trolls, Twitter eggs, or other unpleasant characters online.
Sometimes, instead of just ignoring a mean-spirited comment like I know I should, I type in the most cathartic response I can think of, take a screenshot, and then file that screenshot away in a little folder that I only revisit when I want to make my coworkers laugh.
I don’t actually send the response. I delete my silly comeback and move on with my life. For all the troll knows, I never saw the original message in the first place. The original message being something like the suggestion, in response to a piece I once wrote, that there should be a special holocaust just for women.
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The little transgressions are the forgivable ones. Local knowledge in any place is earned with time. So it’s understandable why someone who is only visiting Hawaii might think to describe poke as “sashimi salad,” for example, though that’s not quite right.
But then there are the big transgressions, the characterizations of a place that are so unmoored from a sense of history that it’s almost shocking.
Almost. But Hawaii has seen it all before.
“The Hawaii Cure,” a feature published March 21 by The New York Times Magazine, treads a well-worn path of colonialist tropes as a writer indulges his escapism fantasies with a trip to Hawaii. That’s nothing new. Yet in the internet age, a lighthearted essay can travel quickly back home and elicit a scathing response from the people who live in the place it depicts. Dozens of Hawaii people I know from when I lived on Oahu responded to the essay—in text messages, online chats, and Facebook comments, to me and to one another, with messages like: “Not today, Satan,” and “I like that you have the print version so you can BURN IT,” and a keyboard-smashing “owfi;ds'pfwePDKFMQE;LFSGKDFJ.” Let’s just say the emoji responses were not kind either.
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As the Republican Party struggled and then failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, pulling a wildly unpopular bill from the House without even taking a vote, a flurry of insightful articles helped the public understand what exactly just happened. Robert Draper explained the roles that Stephen Bannon, Paul Ryan, and others played in deciding what agenda items President Trump would pursue in what order. Politicoreported on how and why the House Freedom Caucus insisted that the health care bill repeal even relatively popular parts of Obamacare. Lest anyone pin blame for the GOP’s failure on that faction, Reihan Salam argued persuasively that responsibility rests with poor leadership by House Speaker Paul Ryan and a GOP coalition with “policy goals that simply can’t be achieved.”