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National Security Council Veteran Weighs In on Foley, Hostages, and ISIL's Brutality

With the Islamic State having killed one American hostage and threatening to kill another, The Wire spoke with Gary Sick, who served on the White House team during the Iranian hostage crisis.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The brutal killing of American photojournalist James Wright Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or Syria) has sparked outrage in the U.S. and drawn condemnation from world leaders, including President Obama. With ISIL threatening to kill a second hostage, journalist Steven Soltoff, The Wire spoke with Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council under three presidents and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979-81. He is now a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Middle East Institute.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

THE WIRE: The American public often hears the phrase, whether from Hollywood or elsewhere, "the United States does not negotiate with terrorists.” In your experience, is that true, or do negotiations actually occur, even if they are never made public?

GARY SICK: In my experience, the statement that 'the United States does not negotiate with terrorists' is actually a negotiating ploy. That is intended to tell terrorists, never mind trying to bargain with us. We won’t listen. In reality, every government has negotiated with the terrorists, with those holding the hostages. It was true of Carter in Iran, it was true of Reagan in Lebanon.

Steven Soltoff was shown in the video and the executioner said “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision." What can we expect to happen to Soltoff? Is there any chance of getting him back safely?

The other thing that is always true about these situations is that a live hostage is actually worth something. A dead hostage is really not worth anything. If they kill the second hostage, which they have suggested that’s what they’re going to do, they just lost the last of their bargaining effort. They have to ask themselves what they’re going to do.

The hostage takers are in a difficult position, too, unless they have infinite hostages. If [Soltoff] is the only other one they’ve got –the most obvious one they’ve got – if they kill him, they’ve lost their bargaining completely. It’s the same thing when Hamas has captured Israeli soldiers or [a tactic] Hezbollah has used to get Israel to give back hundreds of Palestinians. But if they were to kill that hostage, they've lost that bargaining chip.

I would say, in a cold-blooded way, that the second hostage’s value has gone up in their eyes unless they think something really significant could come from it. If they kill him and the bombing goes on, they’ve lost it. Although this is all done with great bravado, I remember my good friend Danny Pearl, he was at the Wall Street Journal and al-Qaeda beheaded and killed him.

One man was already hung for that. Another has admitted he carried out the beheading. If he ever comes to trial, he will be sentenced to death. Eventually, and it might be surprising, justice does catch up with these guys, and it is clearly a war crime. Killing an innocent civilian you are holding as a hostage is a war crime, period. If they ever get captured, they will be interrogated and they’re likely to be hanged for it. Now, in battle, they don’t think on it.

What do you imagine the NSC and Pentagon are doing now, knowing that ISIL has already killed one hostage and is threatening to kill another? What can they do, short of responding to ISIL's demands specifically, to try to get Soltoff home?

My guess is what they will do, is take whatever clues they can generate based on the video they received. Of course, ISIS is aware of that. [The NSC] will try to gain intelligence on who these people might be, where they came from, and they will have a lot of help on that [from other countries]. The British, and the Turkish, Jordanians, and even the Iranians, to the extent they have any information. It really is an intelligence problem, assuming they aren’t prepared to negotiate, and I would be very surprised if that would happen.

I don’t see them having a big debate in the NSC [about negotiating]. I see it as, 'Should we give them something? Clearly no.’

People have been surprised by the level of brutality shown by ISIL, saying it is perhaps even worse than al-Qaeda. In your experience, is ISIL's brutality unprecedented, or does the fact that they can disseminate images and videos so rapidly to so many people through social media make it seem worse than in the past?

The competition here on brutality is pretty extreme. Al-Qaeda, I remember vividly, beheaded Danny Pearl for basically no reason at all, just to show they could do it. They imposed rules on the places they governed that were every bit as brutal as ISIS. That level of brutality is not new. It has happened before.

What happened with al-Qaeda was because of its brutality – and the same happened with the Taliban –because of the excess of their brutality, they didn’t last very long and they didn't win many hearts and minds. They ended up being squeezed out. They lost support of people that would have otherwise supported them. For example, Saudi Arabia has supported Sunnis in the past, but now it is unlikely they will do anything except work to overcome this group because they have shown it is really hard to deal with them. They may think they are demonstrating strength, but if they want to maintain power over that area, this could be a losing strategy on their part. Especially if you consider al-Qaeda in Iraq, their extreme brutality and rigidity of their views, it made them lose control of the territory.

Has social media changed hostage situations in a major way? Does it offer more information about them than before?

It certainly moves faster. When the hostage crisis was going on in Tehran, or say Lebanon, the hostage takers could get a hearing anytime they wanted to. The hostage takers in the embassy had a press spokeswoman. She met with the press on a regular basis who issued communications, described what demands were, and we had quite a lot of information from that. The American media, the world media, we were taking it all down and broadcasting instantly. There was live TV outside of the US embassy every night. American media was there covering it full.

I don’t think the dissemination of these videos is that unusual. The hostage takers, the terrorists, the militants, have to decide for themselves what they want to do. We had heard almost nothing about Foley [from ISIS] for the last two years. I was not aware there was any information made available, and it is being done for a very specific purpose.

They use publicity for their own purposes. [It was] live TV before the Internet, and now you have YouTube and Twitter. It gets around to more people faster on YouTube and Twitter for a photo like this, but otherwise, the hostage takers have always been very clever in finding ways to communicate their message.

A former FBI hostage negotiator we spoke with noted that videos have become a very effective leveraging tool for terrorists. He noted specifically the case of Bowe Bergdahl, in which a video of him looking ill reportedly affected negotiations. During your hostage negotiations, did images or videos affect the process?

The hostage negotiations I dealt with were quite different, because there were reports about their health and well-being from within the embassy. People from the outside were officially permitted to meet with them. As for the hostages in Lebanon, the hostage takers there were very secretive. They gave out almost no information at all. They just held these hostages and never made formal demands about what they wanted. That remained on their side, you had members of their families going on TV saying, ‘Don’t forget about these people, they are there and suffering.’ But as far as I know, there were no photographs of this sort. In an earlier hostage situation, there may be indications that the person being held became ill or was dying, and that affected negotiations, but I didn’t run into that myself.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.