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.
One hundred years ago, a retail giant that shipped millions of products by mail moved swiftly into the brick-and-mortar business, changing it forever. Is that happening again?
Amazon comes to conquer brick-and-mortar retail, not to bury it. In the last two years, the company has opened 11 physical bookstores. This summer, it bought Whole Foods and its 400 grocery locations. And last week, the company announced a partnership with Kohl’s to allow returns at the physical retailer’s stores.
Why is Amazon looking more and more like an old-fashioned retailer? The company’s do-it-all corporate strategy adheres to a familiar playbook—that of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Sears might seem like a zombie today, but it’s easy to forget how transformative the company was exactly 100 years ago, when it, too, was capitalizing on a mail-to-consumer business to establish a physical retail presence.
The president’s latest comments shouldn’t be surprising—but his deliberate inflammation of tense situations is no less stunning.
During last year’s presidential campaign, I conducted a running feature called the “Trump Time Capsule.” Its purpose was to chronicle the things Donald Trump said or did that were entirely outside the range of previous presidents or major-party nominees. This, in turn, was meant to lay down a record of what was known about this man, as the electorate decided whether to elevate him to presidential power.
By the time the campaign ended, the series had reached installment #152. Who Donald Trump was, and is, was absolutely clear by election day: ignorant, biased, narcissistic, dishonest. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in our current issue, everyone who voted for him did so with ample evidence about the kind of person they considered the “better” choice, or even as a minimally acceptable choice for president. Almost nothing Trump has done since taking office should come as a surprise.
NFL athletes are protesting on behalf of America’s founding values––and Donald Trump neither loves nor understands them.
Donald Trump, who has a disturbing history of praising brutal dictators, possesses no better than a Twitter troll’s understanding of what it means to be an American patriot. He spent the weekend trolling the NFL over the players protesting police violence during the national anthem, though any other president would have been attending to the millions of fellow citizens suffering in Puerto Rico; and the NFL athletes who defied him by taking a knee Sunday in solidarity with protests against police killings had the high ground, as good students of American history will understand.
When the Founding Fathers affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, the first act of political courage in United States history, the American flag as we know it did not yet exist. And it would be more than a century before the Star Spangled Banner was adopted as the national anthem. Yet the Founders were not deficient in love of country for lacking the Stars and Stripes. In bravely dissolving political bonds with Britain, Thomas Jefferson set forth the premise of the United States, the core ideas around which his countrymen rallied: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
A good marriage is no guarantee against infidelity.
“Most descriptions of troubled marriages don’t seem to fit my situation,” Priya insists. “Colin and I have a wonderful relationship. Great kids, no financial stresses, careers we love, great friends. He is a phenom at work, fucking handsome, attentive lover, fit, and generous to everyone, including my parents. My life is good.” Yet Priya is having an affair. “Not someone I would ever date—ever, ever, ever. He drives a truck and has tattoos. It’s so clichéd, it pains me to say it out loud. It could ruin everything I’ve built.”
Priya is right. Few events in the life of a couple, except illness and death, carry such devastating force. For years, I have worked as a therapist with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. And my conversations about affairs have not been confined within the cloistered walls of my therapy practice; they’ve happened on airplanes, at dinner parties, at conferences, at the nail salon, with colleagues, with the cable guy, and of course, on social media. From Pittsburgh to Buenos Aires, Delhi to Paris, I have been conducting an open-ended survey about infidelity.
At a game played in London on Sunday afternoon, many of their fellow Ravens and Jaguars took a knee.
Before the Lions met the Falcons in Detroit on Sunday, Rico LaVelle sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And then he took a knee.
They were replicating the gesture of Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who, starting in 2016, had been kneeling during the pre-game singing of the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick’s 49ers teammates, Eric Reid and Eli Harold, took a knee. The Beaumont Bulls, a high school team, took a knee. Their collective protests, however, had been limited—deviations from the norm.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
What J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit still has to offer, 80 years after its publication
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So began the legendarium that dominated a genre, changed Western literature and the field of linguistics, created a tapestry of characters and mythology that endured four generations, built an anti-war ethos that endured a World War and a Cold War, and spawned a multibillion-dollar media franchise. J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is probably best remembered today by the sword-and-sandal epic scale of The Lord of The Rings films, but it started in the quiet, fictionalized English countryside of the Shire. It started, 80 years ago in a hobbit-hole, with Bilbo Baggins.
Although Tolkien created the complicated cosmological sprawl of The Silmarillion and stories like the incestuous saga of Túrin Turambar told in The Children of Húrin, Middle-earth itself is mostly remembered today as something akin to little Bilbo in his Hobbit-hole: quaint, virtuous, and tidy. Nowadays, George R.R. Martin’s got the market cornered on heavily initialed fantasy writers, and his hand guides the field. High and epic fantasy are often expected to dip heavily into the medieval muck of realism, to contain heavy doses of sex and curses, gore and grime, sickness and believable motives and set pieces. Characters like Martin’s mercenary Bronn of the Blackwater are expected to say “fuck.” Modern stories, even when set in lands like A Song of Ice and Fire’s Essos that are filled with competing faiths, tend toward the nihilist, and mostly atheist. Heavenly beings are denuded of potency and purity; while the gods may not be dead, divinity certainly is.
Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have a better claim on the United States’s symbols and their meaning.
President Trump apparently slept on it overnight and woke up early on Sunday morning thinking: “Yes, I will fight a cultural war against black athletes.”
In two Sunday morning tweets, Trump urged a boycott of the National Football League until owners punished players who refused to stand for the national anthem, in protest of police brutality and racial injustice—capping a weekend of taunting and trash-talking that began at his Alabama rally Friday night. He’s now created a situation in which it will seem almost unmanly for black athletes, and not only football players, not to take a knee during the anthem. If they stand for the anthem, they will seem to do so at Trump’s command. How can they not resist?
Two new books explore America’s changing romantic landscape.
C.S. Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, died of bone cancer on July 13, 1960. The next day, the famous author wrote a letter to Peter Bide, the priest who had married them, to tell him the news.
“I’d like to meet,” Lewis writes, suggesting the two grab lunch sometime soon. “For I am—oh God that I were not—very free now. One doesn’t realize in early life that the price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy is to be tied.”
When it comes to romance, Americans are freer than they’ve ever been. Freer to marry, freer to divorce, freer to have sex when and with whom they like with fewer consequences, freer to cohabitate without getting married, freer to remain single, freer to pursue open relationships or polyamory.