NEW YORK — On Wednesday, the family and friends of Jim Foley will mark the one year anniversary of his murder in Syria. In the weeks and months ahead, those who loved three other Americans killed in Syria — journalist Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller — will mourn similarly.
The pointlessness and cruelty of their deaths will again leave people struggling for answers. How the four of them in many ways represented the best of humanity — and their killers the worst — will strike people as well. So should the bravery of their families.
Two months ago, the Foley, Sotloff, Kassig and Mueller families won a bittersweet victory in Washington. Accompanied by two dozen relatives of current and former hostages, they had a private 45-minute meeting with President Barack Obama on June 24th.
Setting aside sorrow and a deep sense of betrayal, the parents of the four American hostages met face-to-face with the president that they believe failed them. Ordinary Americans — three nurses, a doctor, a body shop owner, a vice president of sales and a high-school biology teacher — held Washington accountable.
The gathering was the culmination of a six-month review of how the US government has responded to kidnapping cases since 2001. More than 80 Americans have been abducted by terrorist groups or pirates since 9/11, the investigation found. More than half returned home safely. Roughly 30 US citizens are still being held hostage overseas today, including Americans abducted by criminal or drug gangs.
Throughout the meeting, a famously detached president was welcoming and candid. After addressing the group for ten minutes, he listened patiently as the families asked pointed and blunt questions.
Obama openly admitted the government’s failings. He said he understood the families’ frustration. He agreed that the families deserved better. Minutes after that private meeting, Obama unveiled Presidential Policy Directive 29, a reorganization of how the US government responds when Americans are taken captive overseas.
Obama publicly declared what FBI officials have privately said for years: American families who pay ransoms would not be prosecuted for providing material support to terrorist groups. He said government negotiators would, for the first time, engage in direct talks with kidnappers. And he pledged that US intelligence officials would try to maximize — instead of curtail — the amount of intelligence information shared with families.
In a series of organizational changes, Obama established an official Hostage Response Group that will meet at the National Security Council to review the status of hostage cases. The State Department will have a new senior diplomat, a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, to push for aid from local governments. And the FBI will house an inter-agency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell of experts from across the government who will try to resolve cases.
Yet the president made no mention of the largest challenge the families face beyond the kidnappers themselves — European governments that pay ransoms. For years, France, Spain, Italy and other European governments have paid direct and indirect ransoms to free their citizens. While the Islamic State killed four American and three British citizens it had taken captive, it freed 14 Europeans after ransoms were paid. US officials estimate that between 2008 and 2014 radical Islamist groups received an estimated $200 million in ransom from various countries, companies and families.
In Obama’s announcement, he said there would be no change in the longstanding US government policy of not paying ransoms. As a result, American families face a staggering challenge — raising the estimated $1 million to $2 million in ransom money themselves that has become the norm thanks to European ransom payments.
To their credit, the families hailed the changes. The Foleys praised the review for “shining a spotlight on the silent crisis of American citizens kidnapped abroad.” The Mueller, Kassig and Sotloff families said in a joint statement that “we have faith that the changes announced today will lead to increased success in bringing our citizens home.”
The families’ magnanimity was remarkable. Instead of aiding their efforts to bring the four captives home, the government had complicated them. Two senior officials in the White House and State Department had repeatedly warned the families they could be prosecuted if they paid a ransom. FBI officials, however, had assured them they would not be. Other FBI agents, meanwhile, had told the families to stop trying to contact intermediaries in the region.
In other cases, the US government has inadvertently killed American captives. Among the attendees at the meeting with Obama were the mother and brother of Luke Somers, a 33-year-old freelance photographer killed by his captors in Yemen last December during a failed US military rescue attempt.
A month later, a US drone strike in Pakistan accidentally killed Warren Weinstein, a 73-year-old American aid worker being held hostage there. Weinstein, who was Jewish, somehow survived three-and-a-half years as a captive of al Qaeda — only to die at the hands of his own countrymen.
Until there is a coordinated approach with Europe regarding the payment of ransom, Obama’s reforms will help the families of hostages — but not necessarily help free captives themselves. Jihadists will continue to target westerners they view as sources of vast ransoms and publicity.
Still, the changes announced in June are a step forward. The credit for the reforms goes to the families of the four captives who perished in Syria. Travelling from New Hampshire, Florida, Indiana and Arizona, four ordinary American families changed American policy for the better. As the death anniversaries of their loved ones are marked, those families deserve our admiration, not our pity.
David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters. In 2008, he was kidnapped by the Taliban for seven months. This article is an updated version of a piece published by Reuters on June 29, 2015.
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