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.
The most popular news channel in the Arab world sits uneasily at the center of the Qatar crisis.
Earlier this month, managers at Al Jazeera, the most popular news channel in the Arab world, summoned nervous journalists into a glass-paneled conference room in the network’s headquarters in Doha. A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia had just imposed an embargo on Qatar, closing its airspace and expelling thousands of Qatari citizens. One of the conditions for lifting the blockade, according to a list leaked on Thursday, was reportedly the closure of Al Jazeera. The network’s leadership wanted to reassure its staff that their jobs were safe. “We’re not planning any changes right now,” journalists were told, according to two participants in the meeting. That left quite a bit unsaid. (I resigned from Al Jazeera English in mid-2013 after working there for nearly four years.)
The president’s policies in office have aligned almost perfectly with Vladimir Putin’s goals.
Fifty-four years ago this month, former President John F. Kennedy delivered the “Strategy of Peace,” a powerful address that captured America’s indispensable leadership at the height of the Cold War. Kennedy knew that our country could not guard against the Soviet Union alone, for he believed that “genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts.”
Incredibly, the man who now leads the United States seems to find himself locked in an alarming and perilous embrace with the Russian government. These ties threaten to weaken a system of alliances that have held Russia—and countless other threats to the international community—at bay since the conclusion of the Second World War.
Mounting evidence that Trump’s election was aided by Russian interference presents a challenge to the American system of government—with lasting consequences for democracy.
Day by day, revelation after revelation, the legitimacy of the Trump presidency is seeping away. The question of what to do about this loss is becoming ever more urgent and frightening.
The already thick cloud of discredit over the Trump presidency thickened deeper Friday, June 23. The Washington Post reported that the CIA told President Obama last year that Vladimir Putin had personally and specifically instructed his intelligence agencies to intervene in the U.S. presidential election to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump.
Whether the Trump campaign knowingly coordinated its activities with the Russians remains uncertain. The Trump campaign may have been a wholly passive and unwitting beneficiary. Yes, it’s curious that the Russians allegedly directed their resources to the Rust Belt states also targeted by the Trump campaign. But it’s conceivable they were all just reading the same polls on FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics.
Richard Ben-Veniste on the uncanny parallels between the scandal he investigated and the controversy over the White House’s alleged links to Russia
Watching the national controversy over the White House and Russia unfold, I’m reminded of Karl Marx’s oft-quoted observation: “History repeats itself: first as tragedy, second as farce.” I was a close witness to the national tragedy that was Richard Nixon’s self-inflicted downfall as president, and I’ve recently contemplated whether a repeat of his “Saturday Night Massacre” may already be in the offing. Given how that incident doomed one president, Trump would do well to resist repeating his predecessor’s mistakes—and avoid his presidency’s descent into a quasi-Watergate parody.
The massacre began when Nixon gave the order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, a desperate effort to prevent him from hearing tape-recorded evidence that proved the White House’s involvement in a conspiracy to obstruct the investigation of a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters. Nixon’s misuse of executive power backfired, immediately costing him two highly respected members of his administration: Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus, who both resigned rather than follow Nixon’s directive. Third in command at the Justice Department was Solicitor General Robert Bork, who agreed to do the dirty deed and fired Cox.
By searching the church's famed family trees, scientists have tracked down a cancer-causing mutation that came west with a pioneer couple—just in time to save the lives of their great-great-great-great grandchildren.
Nobody knew it then, but the genetic mutation came to Utah by wagon with the Hinman family. Lyman Hinman found the Mormon faith in 1840. Amid a surge of religious fervor, he persuaded his wife, Aurelia, and five children to abandon their 21-room Massachusetts house in search of Zion. They went first to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the faith’s prophet and founder, Joseph Smith, was holding forth—until Smith was murdered by a mob and his followers were run out of town. They kept going west and west until there were no towns to be run out of. Food was scarce. They boiled elk horns.The children’s mouths erupted in sores from scurvy. Aurelia lost all her teeth. But they survived. And so did the mutation.
Gyms and other secular communities are starting to fill spiritual and social needs for many nonreligious people.
“You always know if someone goes to Harvard or if they go to CrossFit—they’ll tell you,” said Casper ter Kuile, a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School. “It’s really interesting that evangelical zeal they have. They want to recruit you.”
CrossFit is his favorite example of a trend he has noticed: how, in the midst of the decline of religious affiliation in America, and the rise of isolation and loneliness, many ostensibly non-religious communities are “functioning in ways that look a little bit religious,” he explained on Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
“People’s behavior and practice is really being unbundled from the institutions and identities that would have been homes for it,” ter Kuile says. “[For example], ‘I was raised Catholic but yoga is really the practice where I find my experience of contemplation.’ As institutional affiliation decreases, people have the same age-old desires for connection, relationships, connection to something bigger than themselves.”
If the party cares about winning, it needs to learn how to appeal to the white working class.
The strategy was simple. A demographic wave—long-building, still-building—would carry the party to victory, and liberalism to generational advantage. The wave was inevitable, unstoppable. It would not crest for many years, and in the meantime, there would be losses—losses in the midterms and in special elections; in statehouses and in districts and counties and municipalities outside major cities. Losses in places and elections where the white vote was especially strong.
But the presidency could offset these losses. Every four years the wave would swell, receding again thereafter but coming back in the next presidential cycle, higher, higher. The strategy was simple. The presidency was everything.
Republicans are going to insist otherwise, but that’s simply not the case.
If there was one goal Senate Republicans had set out to achieve in developing their health bill to show they were less “mean” than their colleagues in the House, it was to take away the House Republicans’ green light for insurers to once again discriminate against those with pre-existing health conditions. Senate Republicans were willing to drive up deductibles and co-pays and be more draconian on Medicaid cuts, but on the one issue of pre-existing conditions they were intent on being less “mean,” as President Trump termed the House bill. Now that the text of the bill has been released, it’s clear that they have failed to achieve that.
As they argue for the bill, Republicans are going to claim that it will not allow insurance plans to discriminate against people because they have a pre-existing condition. But that just isn’t the case. The Republican plan may not allow insurers to discriminate against a pre-existing condition through the front door, but they’ve created a backdoor way in.
Most used to work in July and August. Now the vast majority don’t. Are they being lazy, or strategic?
The summer job is considered a rite of passage for the American Teenager. It is a time when tossing newspaper bundles and bussing restaurant tables acts as a rehearsal for weightier adult responsibilities, like bundling investments and bussing dinner-party plates. But in the last few decades, the summer job has been disappearing. In the summer of 1978, 60 percent of teens were working or looking for work. Last summer, just 35 percent were.
Why did American teens stop trying to get summer jobs? One typical answer is: They’re just kids, and kids are getting lazier.
One can rule out that hypothesis pretty quickly. The number of teens in the workforce has collapsed since 2000, as the graph below shows. But the share of NEETs—young people who are “Neither in Education, Employment, or Training”—has been extraordinarily steady. In fact, it has not budged more than 0.1 percentage point since the late 1990s. Just 7 percent of American teens are NEETs, which is lower than France and about the same as the mean of all advanced economies in the OECD. The supposed laziness of American teenagers is unchanging and, literally, average.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.