By Lauren McMah
When their son was kidnapped by IS terrorists in Syria in 2012, John and Diane Foley were not unfamiliar with the heartache.
James Foley, a journalist, had been detained for 44 days in Libya the year before.
But when he was captured a second time, the Foleys found they weren’t alone in their grief.
Four other American families also had children who had been abducted by militants in or near Syria.
Like Foley, journalist Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller were held by IS, while a fifth hostage, journalist Theo Padnos, had been captured by the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
Frustrated by a US government they felt was unwilling or unable to help, the five desperate families joined forces in a rogue mission spearheaded by wealthy American media company owner David Bradley to bring their kids home, a report by The New Yorker reveals.
The families had pleaded with President Barack Obama for help. But while concerned, the White House was vague about what they could do.
Peter Kassig’s mother, Paula, told the magazine about a call she received from an official at the State Department after Peter was kidnapped.
“She basically said, ‘We know your son has been taken in Syria. We don’t have an embassy in Syria. We don’t have people on the ground in Syria. We don’t have a diplomatic relationship with them, so we can’t do anything to help you’,” Paula Kassig said.
The FBI was much the same, said the Foleys.
“They (the FBI) kept telling us to do nothing,” Diane Foley said.
“And trust them,” her husband John added. “And telling us that our kid is their highest priority. Which we didn’t believe.”
The families had been forced into silence by the kidnappers and the FBI, so they worked quietly and independently to recruit sources, infiltrate networks and seek information about rescuing their children, often despite warnings from US government agencies to stop, and sometimes by risking terrorism charges of their own.
They used experienced journalists and aid workers in Syria for updates, engaged NGO contacts and ex-government officials for advice, reached out to local sheikhs and recruited Arabic-speaking “fixers” in Syria who could obtain crucial information about the terror network.
About 150 people were approached in this third-party investigation into the abduction of Foley, Sotloff, Padnos, Kassig and Mueller.
But their desperate mission was constantly stifled by the FBI, who were also investigating the kidnappings, The New Yorker said.
The parents were threatened with prosecution if they paid ransom money. They were also told they shouldn’t be in contact with terrorists.
In one instance, Bradley had called on an American lawyer, Mary Hardy, who was studying insurgencies in Afghanistan. She discovered the people who abducted Padnos and another US hostage, Matt Schrier, were using Schrier’s PayPal account to buy items from a shop owner on the Turkish border.
Suspecting a gang connected to the shop owner had kidnapped Padnos, Hardy volunteered her information to the FBI, who ordered her to shut down her investigation. The families quickly learnt the exchange of information with the FBI was a one-way street.
“The FBI called me once a week from Washington, every Tuesday between three-thirty and four o’clock, without fail, just to see if I had information for them,” Art Sotloff, Steven’s father, told The New Yorker.
“Not to give me information. After three or four phone calls, I just let them go to voicemail.”
The Bradley team pressed on in their mission to save Foley, Sotloff, Padnos, Kassig and Mueller, bolstered by the emotional support their unique bond provided.
Things began to get more desperate when the Sotloffs, the Kassigs, and the Muellers agreed to break their silence and make a video pleading with IS ringleader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for Steven, Peter and Kayla’s release.
Time ran out for the Foley family in August 2014 when IS released a YouTube video depicting James Foley’s brutal execution, seemingly in retaliation to US air strikes on IS-held territory.
That was the first major blow.
“I had never thought that ISIS would kill Jim,” Bradley told The New Yorker.
“The next morning, the implications hit me. For the first time in eighteen months, our search for Jim was over. And we had failed Jim’s family.”
The video had forewarned Steven Sotloff’s imminent death.
Footage of his grisly execution was released by the terror group in September.
Peter Kassig, a recent Muslim convert, was next to die. His decapitated head was shown on an IS-released video but it is unclear whether he was executed or killed in a bombing.
Kayla Mueller’s parents learned of her death on February 6 this year. She had reportedly been married off to an IS commander and the terror group claimed she was killed in a coalition air strike.
Only one of the five hostages, Theo Padnos, found freedom. His ransom had been paid by the Qatar government, which his captors, the al-Nusra Front, relied on for support.
A former FBI agent had arranged for Bradley to meet Qatar’s head of intelligence and he took pity on Padnos’ desperate mother, Nancy Curtis.
But it was a risk, because under US law, conspiring to enrich an al-Qaeda affiliate such as al-Nusra was considered material support of terrorism.
The problem with ransoms
Since James’ execution John and Diane Foley have bitterly criticised the US government’s refusal to pay ransoms to terrorists.
The abductors of Foley, Sotloff, Padnos, Kassig and Mueller had demanded ransom money, ranging from five million to 100 million euros ($A7.2 million to $A144 million), plus some prisoner exchanges, according to The New Yorker.
The families were conflicted over whether or not to pay up. The Foleys raised funds and the Sotloffs considered it, but Kayla’s mother Marsha Mueller didn’t want to help bankroll IS.
In any case, they were threatened with criminal charges if they did.
And what made the families more frustrated was that European governments seemed to be unofficially paying ransoms to secure the safe release of their hostages in Syria, while the US hostages remained locked up.
European countries have paid millions in ransom for the release of its hostages to al-Qaeda and its affiliates, according to an investigation by the New York Times.
Last April, French journalist Nicolas Henin was freed by his Islamic State captors after sharing a cell with four Western hostages, including Foley and Sotloff, describing the brutal treatment they received. The French government was rumoured to have paid $23 million to IS to secure the freedom of Mr Henin and two other French citizens, though it publicly denies it.
IS alone ‘earned’ about $US20 million ($A25.9 million) from ransom payments last year, Business Insider Australia reports.
The US, UK and Australian governments have a hard line policy against granting concessions to terrorists.
But last week, after a review of the US government’s hostage policies, the Obama Administration announced that families of Americans held hostage by terrorists would no longer face criminal prosecution for paying ransoms to their captors, CNN reported.
While the Foleys welcomed the policy shift, Obama’s announcement would have virtually no practical change, Malcolm Jorgensen, a lecturer in American politics and foreign policy at the United States Study Centre, said.
French reporter Nicolas Henin was held for 10 months before a rumoured ransom payment by the French government secured his release.
This was because while the US could prosecute these families, it had a long term, unofficial policy not to actually do it.
“Part of the American approach here is to signal to its adversaries that it will not negotiate with them (and) ... it will even prosecute its own people who try to facilitate these payments. But in fact the policy has been to not enforce that,” Mr Jorgensen told news.com.au.
“So the shift in policy has not been much of a shift — it’s more of a signalling to the domestic audience that there was some negative publicity and in some ways it was not a very compassionate policy towards these families.
“But the government did reinforce that it hasn’t shifted on the practice of no concessions from the American government.”
Mr Jorgensen said the US “no concessions” policy, which included ransom payments and prisoner exchanges, was designed to discourage terrorists from taking hostages, either for power through publicity or for much-needed resources.
“The kind of amounts that were being asked for, for James Foley for instance, would have made a significant impact on the arming of individuals within ISIS,” he said.
“Some studies have failed to show that this policy has had an effect on reducing the number of Americans, relative to other nationalities, taken hostage. But part of the reason for the US having this policy is to reinforce the appearance of its strength.”
But why did the militants who captured James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Theo Padnos, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller even bother demanding ransoms?
“Part of the strategy of terrorists is to try and cause disruptions within a particular society, and so if they start causing tension between the official leadership and citizens in any context, they are starting to achieve some of their aims,” Mr Jorgensen said.
“By demanding these ransoms, even though they know (the US policy) is a strong policy, they start to cause disruptions. And the fact that the US has had to come out and adjust its policy demonstrates a degree of success.”
Though he was released with other French hostages more than a year ago, Nicolas Henin said he couldn’t shake the horrors of his time in captivity.
“Normally when you are released you are free — I’m not,” he said after 10 months in captivity.
“My mind is still somewhere in a cell in Syria, and I can very much wake up one day with news that one of my former cellmates has been killed and this brings me back months before.”
But, he adds: “Families always suffer even more than the hostages themselves.
“The worst thing is not to know anything, and not to be able to do anything.”
This article was originally published at News.com.au