How the U.S. and Europe Failed James Foley

Journalist James Foley, of Rochester, N.H., responds to questions during an interview with The Associated Press, in Boston, May 27, 2011.

Steven Senne/AP

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Journalist James Foley, of Rochester, N.H., responds to questions during an interview with The Associated Press, in Boston, May 27, 2011.

The different U.S. and European approaches to abductions reflect a particularly grim fact confronting American citizens abroad. By David Rohde

Somewhere in the desert of eastern Syria, a militant from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria beheaded the American journalist James Foley this week. The killer and his terrorist group are responsible for Foley’s death. They should be the focus of public anger.

But Foley’s execution is also a chilling wake-up call for American and European policymakers, as well as U.S. news outlets and aid organizations. It is the clearest evidence yet of how vastly different responses to kidnappings by U.S. and European governments save European hostages but can doom the Americans. Hostages and their families realize this fully—even if the public does not.

“I wish I could have the hope of freedom and seeing my family once again, but that ship has sailed,” Foley said moments before he was killed in a craven video released by the militant group on Tuesday. “I guess, all in all, I wish I wasn’t American.” Foley clearly spoke under duress. But his regret at being an American captive, real or not, reflected grim fact.

This spring, four French and two Spanish journalists held hostage by Islamic State extremists were freed—after the French and Spanish governments paid ransoms through intermediaries. The U.S. government refused to negotiate or pay a ransom in Foley’s case or for any other American captives—including my own abduction by the Taliban five years ago. With the help of an Afghan journalist abducted with me, I was lucky enough to escape. But today Foley is dead and Islamic State militants now say Steven Sotloff, a journalist for Time magazine whom the group also captured, will be killed if the United States does not stop bombing its fighters in Iraq. 

There are no easy answers in kidnapping cases. The United States cannot allow terrorist groups to control its foreign policy. One clear lesson that has emerged in recent years, however, is that security threats are more effectively countered by united American and European action. The divergent U.S. and European approach to abductions fails to deter captors or consistently safeguard victims.

Last month, a New York Times investigation found that al-Qaeda and its direct affiliates had received at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008—primarily from European governments. In the last year alone, they received $66 million. “Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil,” Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, wrote in a 2012 letter to the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, “which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.”

Publicly, European governments deny making these payments. But former diplomats told the Times that ransoms have been paid through intermediaries. Kidnapping as a fundraising tactic is thriving and rates are going up. In 2003, a ransom of roughly $200,000 was paid for each captive, the newspaper found. Today, captors reap millions per captive. Abductions have become so lucrative that al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan help oversee negotiations for affiliates. Militant groups spread across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are now following the same rough protocol. Hostage-taking by extremist groups is now so pervasive that at least one major aid organization is not sending U.S. aid workers to areas where they might be abducted. Instead, the group is sending citizens from European countries with governments that will pay ransoms.

The cases have taken on a grim pattern: Hostages are abducted, months pass with no news from the captors, and a threatening video or email is then sent to families. In some cases, the militants ask that cases not be made public so ransom can be paid quietly.

This was the case in the Foley’s tortuous, 21-month abduction. For the first 16 months after Foley was taken captive, his family had no information regarding his whereabouts. They learned he was alive from two Spanish journalists who were freed by the Islamic State in March after a ransom was paid. In a subsequent email message, the captors instructed the family to keep the case quiet and not identify the Islamic State as the kidnappers. Fearing for Foley’s life, the family obeyed. Other American families with loved ones taken captive by militants have done the same. Privately, the Foleys and other families have grown intensely frustrated with the failure of American officials to negotiate with the captors. U.S. government officials also refused to coordinate their response in any way with European governments.

In the days and weeks ahead, the Foley family will speak for themselves about their ordeal. But the payment of ransoms and abduction of foreigners must emerge from the shadows. It must be publicly debated. American and European policymakers should be forced to answer for their actions.

Foley believed that his government would help him, according to his family. In a message that was not made public, Foley said that he believed so strongly that Washington would help that he refused to allow his fellow American captives to not believe in their government.

A consistent response to kidnapping by the U.S. and Europe is desperately needed. The current haphazard approach is failing. James Foley must not die in vain.

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