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.
Mark Zuckerberg might believe the world is better without privacy. He’s wrong.
It will be fantastically satisfying to see the boy genius flayed. All the politicians—ironically, in search of a viral moment—will lash Mark Zuckerberg from across the hearing room. They will corner Facebook’s founding bro, seeking to pin all manner of sin on him. This will make for scrumptious spectacle, but spectacle is a vacuous substitute for policy.
As Facebook’s scandals have unfolded, the backlash against Big Tech has accelerated at a dizzying pace. Anger, however, has outpaced thinking. The most fully drawn and enthusiastically backed proposal now circulating through Congress would regulate political ads that can appear on the platform, a law that hardly curbs the company’s power or profits. And, it should be said, a law that does nothing to attack the core of the problem: the absence of governmental protections for personal data.
Sarah Sanders says the U.S. can’t “dictate” to other countries how to run themselves, but Trump has had no problems labeling governments elsewhere in the world repressive.
The White House again offered a puzzling response to foreign policy regarding Russia on Tuesday, refusing to criticize the voting that reelected Vladimir Putin by a landslide on Sunday.
Asked whether the White House deemed the election “free and fair,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders offered this deflection:
In terms of the election, there we’re focused on our elections. We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate. What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country, and that’s not something that we can dictate to them how to operate. We can only focus on the freeness and fairness of our elections, something we 100 percent fully support, and something we’re going to continue to do everything we can to protect to make sure bad actors don’t have the opportunity to impact them in any way.
They’re both blamed for predisposing their members to violent acts, but they’ve sparked radically different public-policy responses.
When I thought about locking up with a crew in 1996, I wanted to see a full initiation first, not parts I stumbled upon over the years. My friend Cliff and I arrived at a park not close from my home in Jamaica, Queens. Leaves danced with the wind around our feet, wafting an eerie feeling in my 14-year-old black body. The grounds of the initiation beckoned: a high-rise chain link fence, enclosing two basketball courts.
Through the daylighted chain, I watched scowls and punches and stomps engulf the uninitiated teen—a stoppage, then an awkward transition into hugs, handshakes, and smiles. The striking contrast shot at my core of authenticity, the insincerity of the punch-hug, of the stomp-smile, murdering my thoughts of joining a crew.
A wedding is no longer the first step into adulthood that it once was, but, often, the last.
The decline of marriage is upon us. Or, at least, that’s what the zeitgeist would have us believe. In 2010, when Time magazine and the Pew Research Center famously asked Americans whether they thought marriage was becoming obsolete, 39 percent said yes. That was up from 28 percent when Time asked the question in 1978. Also, since 2010, the Census Bureau has reported that married couples have made up less than half of all households; in 1950 they made up 78 percent. Data such as these have led to much collective handwringing about the fate of the embattled institution.
But there is one statistical tidbit that flies in the face of this conventional wisdom: A clear majority of same-sex couples who are living together are now married. Same-sex marriage was illegal in every state until Massachusetts legalized it in 2004, and it did not become legal nationwide until the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. Two years after that decision, 61 percent of same-sex couples who were sharing a household were married, according to a set of surveys by Gallup. That’s a high take-up rate: Just because same-sex couples are able to marry doesn’t mean that they have to; and yet large numbers have seized the opportunity. (That’s compared with 89 percent of different-sex couples.)
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory
One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.
My same-sex partner and I have been seeing the same therapist both individually and as a couple. Over the past year, we both feel that she has fundamentally changed our lives.
While seeing her nearly weekly, we’ve both grown pretty attached to her—she’s funny, kind, and around our age—and we have often joked, outside of therapy, about how we wish she could be our friend rather than our therapist.
One day, regrettably, we were feeling a bit nosy and decided to see if we could find our therapist on Facebook. We ended up falling down a rabbit hole and discovered something concerning; our therapist’s father is a prominent public figure in our state who has taken many hardline stances against the LGBTQ community. We were shocked by this.
As regulators and chaos circle the company following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook's leader has gone absent without leave.
Some time, about 10 days ago, Facebook was notified that there were major stories planned in The Guardian, The New York Times, and on British television about Cambridge Analytica. These stories would allege that the company built its initial models of American voters with data ferried out of Facebook by an app built by a Cambridge psychology researcher. And that when informed that this data existed, the company’s response was, at best, pro forma.
The stories came out last Friday and Facebook’s shares have been in free fall since the markets opened this week. There are massive open questions about this data and the effectiveness of the techniques that Cambridge Analytica has claimed to use. Of course, Russian connections are being floated.
The party nominated businessman J.B. Pritzker to go up against Governor Bruce Rauner, the Republican incumbent who barely avoided an embarrassing primary defeat on Tuesday night.
Democrats have for more than a year gone to bat against a billionaire president and his Cabinet full of wealthy executives, railing against their conflicts of interest and accusing them of satisfying their lavish tastes on the taxpayers’ dime.
But in their quest to reclaim the governorship of the nation’s third-largest blue state, Democrats in Illinois have turned to a billionaire of their own to match up against the Republican multimillionaire in office, Bruce Rauner.
J.B. Pritzker, an entrepreneur, investor, and longtime Democratic donor, on Tuesday night easily defeated a son of Robert F. Kennedy and a liberal state senator to capture the party’s nomination ahead of a general-election campaign that’s expected to be the most expensive in state history. Pritzker won 45.4 percent of the vote to 26.5 percent for state Senator Daniel Biss and 24.2 percent for Chris Kennedy, who could not translate his family name into electoral success as a first-time candidate.
A report that the president had senior White House staff sign non-disclosure agreements is the latest reminder of how much he conceals from public view.
Donald Trump has little regard for the privacy of the masses. During the 2016 campaign, he bought access to psychological profiles of millions of voters created by scraping and studying their Facebook accounts without most of them having granted permission. He signed a bill repealing FCC rules that limited the ability of Internet service providers to sell data on our browsing habits. Like his predecessor, he presides over surveillance agencies that collect metadata on the private communications of hundreds of millions of Americans whether they like it or not. And his administration pays a private corporation for access to billions of photographs that reveal where and when particular cars drove on public roads and highways.