Inflexible approach by U.S. government may have led to deaths of American hostages

The New York Times reports: For a fleeting moment last year, Louai Abo Aljoud, a Syrian journalist, made eye contact with the American hostages being held by the Islamic State militant group.

One of dozens of prisoners inside a former potato chip factory in northern Syria, Mr. Abo Aljoud was taken out of his cell one day and assigned to deliver meals to fellow inmates. It was when he opened the slot to Cell No. 2 that he first saw them — the gaunt, frightened faces of James Foley, Steven J. Sotloff and Peter Kassig.

Mr. Abo Aljoud, a 23-year-old freelance cameraman, said he resolved not only to save himself, but also to help the other inmates if he could. He memorized the prison’s floor plan and studied its location in Aleppo. When he became one of the lucky few to be released this May, he pressed to meet with American officials in neighboring Turkey.

“I thought that I had truly important information that could be used to save these people,” he said. “But I was deeply disappointed.”

A State Department employee and a contractor were eventually sent to meet him at a restaurant, but both were assigned to deal with civil society in Syria, not hostages. Mr. Abo Aljoud grew frustrated, insisting he could pinpoint the location of the prison on a map. Instead, he said, he received only vague assurances that the employees would pass on the details he had shared and his contact information to the relevant investigators.

“It’s my impression that they were more interested in gathering intelligence, in general, than in saving these people,” he said. “I could have shown them the location on Google Maps, but they weren’t interested.” Although the hostages had been moved by the time he met with the American officials this spring, the militants have been known to recycle prison locations.

The United States says that it does all it can through diplomacy, intelligence gathering and even military action, such as a failed commando raid in Syria in July, to try to free hostages. It reached out to more than two dozen countries to seek help in rescuing the Americans held in Syria, a National Security Council spokesman, Alistair Baskey, said in an emailed statement on Friday. Mr. Abo Aljoud offers a counterpoint to the official government position: one that does not contradict all of Washington’s assertions but indicates systemic gaps in its efforts to free captives.

The New York Times has previously reported that many European countries have funneled ransoms to terrorists to rescue their citizens, a tactic the United States has steadfastly refused to pursue, arguing that it encourages more kidnappings. But interviews with family members of the hostages, former F.B.I. officials, freed prisoners and Syrians claiming to be go-betweens for the Islamic State suggest that this policy has also made the government reluctant to engage with people claiming to have valuable information about the hostages or suggesting possible ways to free them.

The challenge of dealing with hostages has grown more acute and complicated over the past year with the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has beheaded hostages from nations that have refused to pay ransoms.

In the decade before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation brought most American hostages home safely by engaging directly with the kidnappers. But after Al Qaeda struck, the approach changed as jihadists transformed kidnappings into a lucrative business that raised hundreds of millions of dollars in ransoms. The United States refused to pay and increasingly refused to consider even talking to the kidnappers, directly or indirectly, critics say.

Former F.B.I. officials say that the post-9/11 approach led to lost opportunities and, perhaps, lives. [Continue reading…]

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