FBI Hostage Negotiators Share Their Insight on the James Foley Tragedy

AP file photo

James Foley, an American journalist, was murdered by ISIL (ISIS) forces in a graphic video that was put online by the Islamic State controlled media outlet AlFurqan. Since that time, it has been authenticated by the White House and British Government (Foley's executioner is from the United Kingdom.) In the United States, the FBI delivered the news of the authentication to Foley's family.

Unfortunately, Foley is not the only hostage to be seized by this group. Foley's murders 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."

Steven Sotloff 

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.

Ransom

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." 

Recruiting 

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. 

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