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For James Foley’s Family, U.S. Policy Offered No Hope

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The New York Times

The email appeared in Michael Foley’s inbox a year after his brother James disappeared on a reporting trip in northern Syria. It made clear that the people holding him wanted one thing above all else: money.

Cautiously hopeful, Michael Foley and his parents, John and Diane, turned over the email to the agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation assigned to their case. The agent provided general guidance but also some stern warnings: The United States would never trade prisoners for hostages, nor would it under any circumstances pay ransom. Moreover, the government told the Foleys that it was a crime for private citizens to pay off terrorists.

More important, in retrospect, was what the F.B.I. did not tell the family: Mr. Foley was being held alongside a dozen Europeans, whose countries have a history of paying ransoms.

Mostly, the government offered sympathy but little active support, the family and their advisers said, leaving them overwhelmed and unsure of what to do.

Guided by its strict no-ransom policy, the United States government’s hands-off approach was vastly different from the tack taken by European countries, which quickly negotiated the release of their citizens in exchange for cash.

FoleyThis greatly frustrated the family of Mr. Foley, 40, a freelance journalist, and the other American hostages, who were desperate for Washington to take stronger action, according to interviews with two dozen people, including members of Mr. Foley’s family, witnesses to his time in captivity, his colleagues and a network of consultants who tried to win his release.

“The F.B.I. didn’t help us much — let’s face it,” Diane Foley said in a telephone interview. “Our government was very clear that no ransom was going to be paid, or should be paid,” she said. “It was horrible — and continues to be horrible. You are between a rock and a hard place.”

For much of the hostages’ captivity, the administration appears to have treated the abductions as unfortunate but relatively routine cases of Americans falling into the hands of extremists. Europeans, by contrast, treated the kidnappings as national security crises.

That placed the Foleys in the middle of a global debate about how to deal with terrorist kidnappings, with European countries and the United States taking opposite sides on an agonizing choice about whether to pay ransoms.

In hindsight, the family criticisms echo broader concerns that the administration did not foresee how the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could become a major threat.

There is little indication that the administration anticipated how Mr. Foley and other American hostages could turn into grisly propaganda by ISIS, increasing pressure on the United States to begin what may become another extended military engagement in the Middle East.

A senior law enforcement official said that the F.B.I. agents spoke to the Foleys “each and every day,” and that a three-member team was assigned to the family. But they were limited by what they could share, both because much of the information was classified and because they did not want to cause further emotional strain.

“We cannot — and do not — want to give the families every single lead because some turn up to be dry holes, and we want to minimize the yo-yo effect,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he did not want to be seen as critical of a grieving mother.

Administration officials have defended their response to the hostage crisis, saying that the government mounted a risky raid in July, using American troops to try to free the captives, though the mission was not successful.

After that first email last November, the captors followed up with a demand for 100 million euros ($130 million) in ransom and the release of unspecified Muslim prisoners. Then, silence.

Eight months later, Ms. Foley would next see her son in a video showing him kneeling in the sand, an executioner’s knife at his neck.
The United States and Britain are among the only countries that abide by a zero-concession policy, refusing to accede to terrorists’ demands, arguing that doing so encourages more kidnapping. By contrast, European countries have repeatedly paid to free their citizens, despite signing numerous declarations vowing not to, prompting condemnation from former American officials and analysts.

“What is hard to prove is how many Americans have not been kidnapped as a result of the fact that the enemy knows they will not get a penny from us,” said Gen. John R. Allen, who recently retired as the top commander in Afghanistan. “In the aftermath of this horrific event it makes it hard to explain this policy. But the fact that there are Americans in the region who were never taken because they knew there was no advantage to doing so needs to be factored in.”

The willingness to pay ransoms for kidnapped victims is a source of debate and mounting tension between the United States and Britain on one side and their European allies on the other. From the families’ perspective, there is another dividing line between the two approaches: Many European nations take charge of the situation from the moment their citizens are captured and aggressively begin a negotiation. By contrast, relatives in the United States said they were left to puzzle through the crisis largely on their own.

While the F.B.I. declined to comment on its handling of the hostage crisis, a senior law enforcement official said that the bureau used every tool at its disposal. He conceded, however, that the bureau is bound by American law and cannot engage in a discussion over a potential ransom. “Those are the lanes in the road we are left to work with,” the official said.

From the perspective of the families, however, the policy of not bargaining with terrorists is itself controversial. They argue that the death of even one person seems a high price to pay for the broader goal of not encouraging further kidnappings.

A Broad Gulf

Unbeknown to the Foleys, the email they received last November was part of a blitz sent by ISIS over a four-month period to the relatives of the 23 Western hostages they would eventually hold in the same jail, including three other Americans.

There was immediately a gulf between how American and European officials responded.

A crisis cell was activated inside the Foreign Ministries of France, Spain, Switzerland and Italy, staffed around the clock with people working in shifts, said a European counterterrorism official who has worked on numerous hostage cases and was briefed on the negotiations with ISIS.

They waited for the kidnappers to reach out, and when they did, the intelligence services of at least one country took over the email accounts of family members, responding directly to the terrorist group, according to a person with direct knowledge of how the negotiations unfolded.

As early as February of this year, the Europeans proceeded from requesting proof of life to making a ransom counteroffer, according to a person closely involved in the crisis who said the average sum negotiated per person was around €2 million.
The Foleys and the other American families were left to answer the emails themselves and kept largely in the dark. They were not introduced to one another and had to find the other families on their own, Ms. Foley said. While high-level officials met with them, they shared little information.

“They were always very cordial,” Ms. Foley said. “The problem was we never got any information about what the government was doing — if anything — on our behalf. Every bit of information we got was on our own.”

The families said they had little evidence that the kidnappings had become a major concern for the Obama administration, though they acknowledge that they were not necessarily aware of all of the government’s efforts. While they reached out to the State Department and were repeatedly told “everything was being done,” they said they never had any clear indication that this was a policy priority.

Mr. Foley’s former employer, the online publication GlobalPost, spent millions of dollars on a security firm it hired to search for clues of the missing journalist, said Philip Balboni, its chief executive.

“As to the F.B.I.’s role,” Mr. Balboni said, “we always felt that we had the laboring oar.”

Being Told to Stall

Because the Foleys did not initially know how to reach the other families, and because they were not aware of what the Europeans were doing, months elapsed before they realized that their son’s captors were releasing his cellmates for cash.

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