The gruesome execution of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shed new light on the secretive ransom negotiations around kidnapped journalists in global conflict zones.
The U.S. government has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists or paying ransom to free hostages, so families and publications are left to negotiate quietly and try to raise millions demanded by kidnappers, without revealing anything in public.
In the case of Foley, who was beheaded and the brutal video released on Tuesday, his family had been in contact with ISIS for months, but they were told expressly to keep the negotiations quiet and not name ISIS as the kidnappers.
Foley was captured in Nov. 2012 by armed men near the town of Taftanaz in northern Syria. The 40-year-old freelance photojournalist had been working on a story for the GlobalPost, a Boston-based online news service.
GlobalPost co-founder and CEO Philip Balboni told WCVB television in Boston Wednesday that millions of dollars were spent trying to secure Foley’s release. “You know when you kidnap someone and hold them for almost two years, you don’t do it unless you believe there is value in those hostages,” he said. Balboni did not specify how the money was spent, or where it came from. Balboni said his last contact with the terrorist group was on Aug. 13.
“We received an email from the captors on Wednesday night of last week stating their intention to execute Jim,” Balboni said. “The email was full of rage. We pleaded [with the captors] for mercy, but to no avail.”
The GlobalPost executive said the White House was aware of the threat but no negotiations occurred after the final e-mail.
It was also revealed Wednesday in The Atlantic that Foley’s parents did not know he was still alive until March of this year — 16 months after his initial kidnapping. The article by David Rohde, a journalist who was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008, said the Foley family learned he was being held hostage by ISIS from two Spanish journalists who were freed after Spain paid a ransom through intermediaries.
The price for kidnapped journalists has risen into the millions. A recent New York Times investigation found al-Qaeda has been paid at least $125 million in ransom money since 2008 — mostly from European governments.
Despite the US’ public stance on not negotiating with terrorists, Rohde says Foley had faith U.S. officials would ultimately intervene. “Foley believed that his government would help him,” says Rohde. “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.”
In the execution video titled “A Message to America,” ISIS blamed Foley’s death on US policies in the Middle East, particularly the recent airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq.
Freelance journalist Steven Sotloff, who often contributed to Time magazine, is also shown in the video. As he kneels in front of the camera, a masked and armed militant holds Sotloff’s orange tunic and issues a chilling threat. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the militant says in perfect English.
A total of 39 professional journalists have been killed in Syria since the start of the conflict in March 2011, according to a report by the nonprofit group Reporters Without Borders. Foley is believed to be the first American journalist executed by ISIS.
Late Wednesday the Pentagon revealed an effort was made to rescue Foley and other Americans being held captive in Syria, but the mission failed. “This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network … unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location,” a Pentagon spokesman said.
This too was meant to be kept private, the National Security Council later revealed, noting:
“We never intended to disclose this operation. An overriding concern for the safety of the hostages and for operational security made it imperative that we preserve as much secrecy as possible. We only went public today when it was clear a number of media outlets were preparing to report on the operation and that we would have no choice but to acknowledge it.”
Despite this military mission, the GlobalPost founder believes the U.S. must do much more to bring American hostages home.
“It warrants a stronger response,” Balboni said. “We carried the burden of this investigation very much alone for a very long time.”
Anita Bennett contributed to this report.