We Tried To Save Them

Nicholas Schmidle gets the inside story on the June raid that failed to rescue James Foley and Steven Sotloff from ISIS:

Anticipating a possible rescue mission, a unit of Delta Force operators left from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, destined for a base in a country neighboring Syria. A geosynchronous satellite monitored the supposed safe house. On July 3rd, a little after 2 A.M. local time, several Black Hawk helicopters left the base, according to the special-operations officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the operation. Some of the Black Hawks carried Delta Force operators; others were Direct Action Penetrators, or DAPs, which do not carry personnel and are modified with rocket pods, 2.75-inch rockets, and chain guns. All of the aircraft crossed into Syrian airspace and headed toward the site outside of Raqqa.

As the helicopters approached the target, two armed Predator drones joined the operation, circling overhead.

(Warplanes were also in the vicinity, “on standby.”) With the DAPs providing cover, the manned helicopters landed and unloaded the team of Delta operators. A gunfight ensued, and two ISIS fighters were killed. The soldiers stormed the apparent safe house, but Foley and Sotloff were nowhere to be found. “It was a dry hole,” the special-operations officer said. The house matched, room for room, the sketches that the F.B.I. had. At one point, a bullet struck one of the helicopter pilots in the leg. The special-operations officer said that the Delta operators were confident that Foley and Sotloff had been there.

Meanwhile, speaking from her perspective as a former prisoner/hostage in Iran, Sarah Shourd urges the US to reconsider its policy of not paying ransoms:

The most frequently sited argument against paying ransom is that by doing so you fund terrorist organizations and create an incentive for groups like ISIS to capture more Americans. There is no doubt in my mind that this argument holds weight.

Still, there is more to consider. After over a year in isolated, incommunicado detention in Iran, during which I was never tried in court or allowed to meet with my lawyer, I was released to the Omani government in exchange for half a million dollars “bail”—in actuality a thinly veiled ransom. Regardless of who pays it, ransom is ransom. What’s the quantitative difference in paying ransom directly as opposed to through a third party when it comes to creating incentive and/or rewarding hostage taking?

The reality is that the U.S. government does negotiate for the release of U.S. hostages, and they clearly do this because they decide the benefits outweigh the risks.

Previous Dish on Foley’s “impossible ransom” here and here. My thoughts on the beheadings here.

Remembering Sotloff, Foley, And The Rest, Ctd

by Jonah Shepp

Will Saletan reacts to Steven Sotloff’s murder the same way I did yesterday, urging us to remember the people whose suffering Sotloff and James Foley gave their lives to bring to light. He rounds up some of the latest reports on ISIS’s many atrocities:

Start with Monday’s testimony before the U.N. Human Rights Council. The documented incidents include 1,700 captives executed in Tikrit, Iraq, and 650 in Mosul, Iraq. Some 1,000 Turkmen massacred, including 100 children. More than 2,000 women and children kidnapped. “Systematic hunting of members of ethnic and religious groups.” Women raped and sold. Young boys executed. Girls enslaved for sexual abuse. Children recruited as suicide bombers. More than 1 million refugees, half of them kids.

Then read the report Amnesty International issued Tuesday. Its title is “Ethnic Cleansing on Historic Scale: The Islamic State’s Systematic Targeting of Minorities in Northern Iraq.” The report details, with eyewitness testimony, several more ISIS atrocities in Iraq. At least 100 men and boys herded together and shot to death in Kocho. “Scores of men and boys” summarily executed in Qiniyeh. More than 50 men “rounded up and shot dead” near Jdali. Human Rights Watch also released a report on Tuesday. It offers new evidence about the massacre in Tikrit. “Information from a survivor and analysis of videos and satellite imagery has confirmed the existence of three more mass execution sites,” says the report. That brings the death toll to “between 560 and 770 men.” The captives were shot dead while lying in trenches with their hands bound.

Saletan argues that these evil acts compel America to step in and stop the Islamic State from killing thousands more. It’s hard to dispute that: surely someone has to stop them, and since we’ve already committed to doing so, yes, we must follow through on that commitment to prevent atrocities and protect the innocent. Still, we know that such interventions are slippery slopes, and I only hope that in trying to alleviate this unimaginable humanitarian crisis, we don’t end up prolonging or exacerbating it. It’s hard to see from the vantage of the present how things could get any worse, but then it always is.

Our Fearless Freelancers

by Jonah Shepp

Among the many pieces written in memory of Steven Sotloff since the news of his death broke on Monday, a few of them struck a particular chord with me, touching on the dangerous, precarious, but potentially greatly rewarding life of a freelance war correspondent: a job in which many young journalists cut their teeth and often make their careers. Michael Totten, who corresponded with Sotloff but never met him in person, remarks that he was “a hell of a lot braver than I am”:

I have not for even a second considered going to Syria during this conflict, and I doubt I’d be willing to go there even a couple of years from now if the conflict were to miraculously end later today. When he lived in Benghazi and everyone was heading for the exits, he told me—and I believed him—that Benghazi was the same old Benghazi, by which he meant mostly fine aside from some unfortunate incidents. Dangerous places are often, though not always, less dangerous than they appear in the media. At least they appear that way. Maybe that’s just a trick of the mind.

Joe Klein didn’t know Sotloff at all, but praises his ilk of freelancers:

I’ve known many stringers like Steve Sotloff and admired almost all of them. They turn up in war zones or other difficult places, looking for adventure and hoping to make a splash…or just tell a compelling story. Many of the brilliant war correspondents whose words and photos have graced Time’s pages started off as stringers. Other stringers can also be academics, with a language skill or a love for the country in question. (Believe me, it is easy to fall in love with Syria and Syrians, or the Yemenis or, in a different era, the Vietnamese.) Still others are local nationals, who risk everything to work for the American media for a variety of reasons–money, truth, patriotism, professional pride. But they all have one thing in common: they are lovers of freedom, personal freedom, their right to pursue the news.

Recalling her time as a stringer in Moscow, Julia Ioffe wrestles with the question of why young journalists take these risks:

[I]f we’re honest with ourselves, we journalists are not just doing it to inform the reader. We’re also taking these risks for ourselves, making the calculation that, stringing and freelancing in places where papers and magazines are either too scared or too cheap to send permanent correspondents, going to iffy places and often for a pittance, someone will notice our labors and reward us with more work, and maybe even a job. It is a bright and risky way to launch a career. It’s also a way to discover that, even if it’s hard to break in, if this is what journalism is, you don’t want to do anything else for the rest of your life. … But the gambit never paid off for Sotloff. His beheading will be, for most anyone who hears his name, the sum total of his career. That is so immensely crushing and disappointing. It’s also, for us journalists, a reminder of the gambit’s downside, the shortness and slipperiness of the future, and the utter fragility of our plans.

I came into journalism through a side door, never having intended to enter the profession until a job as an sub-editor at The Jordan Times simply fell into my lap, mainly by dint of my ability to write in English. I did a little reporting, but nothing very substantial. What I liked about the job was getting to know the country through what my colleagues reported, as well as what our stories left out, which came to me in editorial meetings and cigarette breaks with the reporters. Friends advised me to do what my colleague Taylor Luck later managed to do and offer myself as a stringer to American newspapers. I e-mailed a high school friend who works at the WaPo to find out how to do that, but never followed through with the editor she referred me to.

The reason, to be perfectly honest, is that I never really had the disposition of a reporter. I love the news, but digging it up requires a certain fearlessness that I never really had. And I certainly could never hack it as the sort of reporter who travels to a war zone: I just don’t have the guts. I could never, like Nir Rosen once did, disguise myself as a member of the Taliban to get an angle on the Afghanistan war that those who followed the US Army could not.

So while Taylor immersed himself in his reporting, learning to speak Arabic 100 percent fluently and making such deep connections in Islamist circles that we joked around the office that he had become one of them, I sat at my desk and got to know Jordan mainly through the stories I edited and by becoming close friends with some of my Jordanian colleagues. By no means is that a bad way to get to know a country, but I always felt a little guilty that I wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunity to go deeper, and worried that I was missing that extra insight that comes from “being there” in the middle of the riot or the battle or the aftermath of the natural disaster.

It takes a great deal of courage, or at least much more than I have, to travel to a foreign war zone and report directly from the rubble and carnage, to embed among rogue militias, to see the destruction firsthand and actually look the widows and orphans in the eye and give them a voice with one’s writing. It’s especially brave to do so without a net. Dedicated war reporters like Foley and Sotloff, to say nothing of their Syrian colleagues who risk imprisonment, torture, and death to get the story, are heroes to humanity in that respect. Bravery like theirs is hard to come by.

Remembering Sotloff, Foley, And The Rest

by Jonah Shepp

For the past two weeks, the gruesome death of James Foley has returned to my mind over and over again. Now that Steven Sotloff has met the same fate, I, like many other Americans of conscience, am now haunted by two ghosts. It is well established that journalists, even those of us who do not work in the field, can get PTSD from the horrors we read about and the images we see day in and day out. I didn’t go looking for the videos of these brutal murders, because I don’t need to see someone get his head sawn off from front to back to be chilled by the thought of such an agonizing death. I’ve seen enough as it is. And as long as this war and others drag on, I know there are more horrors to come.

The impulse to make martyrs of our dead leads us to ascribe more importance to some murders than others. Yet Foley and Sotloff are but two among nearly 70 journalists killed while covering the conflict in Syria, hundreds who have been brutally murdered by ISIS jihadists in similarly gruesome fashion, and nearly 200,000 casualties of a civil war gone hopelessly off the rails. We feel for Foley and Sotloff in a way we do not feel for other victims of this compounded Syrian-Iraqi crisis because they look like us and speak our language, because many of us share their Irish and Jewish surnames, and because their grieving families remind us of our own in ways that ululating Iraqi widows don’t. There’s nothing wrong with that: in-group bias can’t be helped, and it doesn’t follow from this outpouring of grief that we do not care about the many others who have suffered so terribly in this war.

Still, as proponents of American leadership-by-war turn to these atrocities as casus belli for an engagement they already wanted, it bears remembering that the forgotten victims of this maelstrom of death are human, too, as Sotloff’s own reporting so eloquently brought out. The humane character of his approach to his job has come up in many of the eulogies written since yesterday. For example, Ishaan Tharoor highlights a story Sotloff wrote from the bread lines in Aleppo:

The piece was the product of a ten-day trip to Syria’s war-ravaged commercial capital at a time when Syria’s “moderate” rebels still appeared to lead the fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It was published on Christmas Eve. In an e-mail sent to a Time editor alongside a link to the Foreign Policy article, Sotloff wrote that the “situation is nothing like the media dispatches from the West depict it,” alluding to the darker forces shaping the rebellion as well as the revolutionary fatigue of Aleppo’s beleaguered populace. “We are people not cattle,” an Aleppo resident told Sotloff, as the pair watched fights break out in a long line for rations of pita bread. “But this war is slowly killing our humanity without a shot ever being fired at us.”

Sotloff, and Foley too, went to Libya, Syria, and other dangerous locales not to cheer for more war or to agitate against it, and not to propagandize for any cause, but rather to bear honest and clear-eyed witness to the human tragedy unfolding beyond the abstracting lenses of policy and strategy through which politicians, elites, experts, the media and by extension the public, often view these “foreign” wars.

The best way to remember Steven Sotloff, then, is not only to remember Steven Sotloff.

Beheading, Baiting, Backfiring

by Dish Staff

In response to ISIS’s brutal murder of American journalist Steven Sotloff in a video released yesterday, the Obama administration is vowing justice for both Sotloff’s death and that of James Foley, with Obama announcing in Estonia this morning that “we will not be intimidated” and “justice will be served”. Bearing in mind that these atrocities against Americans makes an escalated US military operation against ISIS more likely, not less, Keating wonders what the group expects to accomplish by killing these hostages:

ISIS may be ruthless and fanatical, but it would be impossible to expand as quickly as it has thus far without an understanding of strategy. The group’s leaders surely know that they are likely drawing the U.S. military further into this conflict and believe this is to their advantage. Kurdish and Iraqi forces, with help from the U.S. and Iran, seem to be rolling back ISIS’s territorial gains in Iraq, so the group’s best hope of remaining a viable and prominent militant group may be to go underground and continue to inflict terror on its enemies. And those enemies aren’t just American. ISIS also recently released videos showing the beheading of a Kurdish peshmerga fighter and a Lebanese soldier. Hopefully this strategy will backfire before any more hostages are killed.

He follows up with some speculative answers, including the possibility that ISIS really thinks it can deter the US:

ISIS may believe that it can continue to demonstrate that it can strike the U.S. by executing these prisoners, and that the U.S. isn’t going to do anything about it. If this really is their thinking, they don’t have a very good grasp of history. Americans are traditionally reluctant to go to war right up until they do. Saddam Hussein didn’t think the U.S. would really attack him either.

Shane Harris and Kate Brannen suspect that by threatening to kill a British hostage, the jihadists are baiting the UK into getting involved militarily:

At the end of the Sotloff video, the killer threatens to execute another captive, who, the killer claims, is British citizen David Cawthorne Haines. That claim couldn’t be immediately verified. But if true, it would show that the Islamic State is broadening its terrorism campaign to include British civilians, a move that could well prompt a military response by the United Kingdom. This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he is weighing whether to join the United States in carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, and potentially in Syria. Without naming Cameron specifically, Sotloff’s killer warns “governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone.” That threat seemed timed to coincide with deliberations in London.

Jamie Dettmer argues against suppressing reporting about ISIS hostages, saying it only amplifies the value of these videos:

Openness would take away some of the control the jihadists have to administer shock as they go on killing. The U.S. and U.K. with their blackouts are handing ISIS the propaganda initiative, leaving it to the jihadists to decide when captives should be named, allowing them to add to the drama of the unveiling when they first threaten hostages with execution on camera and then carrying out the brutal deed. At least this power of naming could be taken from the jihadists, who already are in the position to taunt their foes and turn their slaughtering of Westerners into a global spectacle.

But Dexter Filkins asks whether ISIS’s snuff films are about something other than propaganda:

It’s hard to watch the video of Steven Sotloff’s last moments and not conclude … the ostensible objective of securing an Islamic state is nowhere near as important as killing people. For the guys who signed up for ISIS—including, especially, the masked man with the English accent who wielded the knife—killing is the real point of being there. Last month, when ISIS forces overran a Syrian Army base in the city of Raqqa, they beheaded dozens of soldiers and displayed their trophies on bloody spikes. “Here are heads that have ripened, that were ready for the plucking,” an ISIS fighter said in narration. Two soldiers were crucified. This sounds less like a battle than like some kind of macabre party.

ISIS Murders Another American

by Jonah Shepp


News broke today that ISIS has made good on their threat to behead kidnapped journalist Steven Sotloff, when a video of the murder appeared on social media:

A masked figure in the video also issued a threat against a British hostage, a man the group named as David Haines, and warned governments to back off “this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State”, the SITE monitoring service said. The purported executioner appeared to be the same British-accented man who appeared in an Aug. 19 video showing the killing of American journalist James Foley, and it showed a similar desert setting. In both videos, the captives wore orange jumpsuits. “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings and … on Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings,” the man said. “So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”

For those who must have the details, the Wire provides a fuller account of the video, including Sotloff’s last words, in which he is forced to lament that he is “paying the price” for the US intervention in Iraq. Much as I’m convinced that Sotloff’s murder will do nothing for the jihadists but shock and disgust the world even more than their past atrocities already have, that’s not much comfort to his poor mother.

As War Reporters Die, So Dies War Reporting

by Dish Staff

George Packer unpacks what the world lost in the murder of James Foley, and continues to lose as journalism in the Syria-Iraq war zone becomes ever more dangerous:

Among the many reasons to mourn Foley’s death is the loss of his reporting, and of reporting in general, from Syria. News of the civil war from Western media organizations has been dwindling as security has deteriorated, and it is now likely to dry up. Local Syrian reporters face an even greater threat. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that at least eighty journalists have been kidnapped since the start of the war and at least seventy have been killed, almost all of them Syrians, and almost all in 2012 and 2013. So far this year, the confirmed number of journalists killed is down to six, Foley being the most recent. (Solid information is increasingly difficult to get.) This cannot be because working conditions in Syria have improved. One likely explanation is that few reporters, and even fewer who reach Western audiences, are still covering the war. This would be disastrous under any circumstances, but it is especially calamitous now.

He also laments how thoroughly the chattering class has politicized the crisis:

The debate about ISIS almost automatically becomes a debate about who’s to blame for it: who started the Iraq War, who withdrew from it, who supported Nouri al-Maliki, who didn’t support the Syrian rebels, who helped to create ISIS, who failed to see ISIS coming, whose policies turned Muslims into jihadists, who has a right to say anything at all. These arguments are a sweet substitute for the thankless task of formulating honest answers to the questions raised by ISIS, which would inevitably mean advocating morally dubious actions with no certainty of a good outcome, as well as having to repudiate many of one’s earlier views.

Reflecting on his own experience as a war reporter, Tom Peter concludes that collecting facts that will only be doubted, disbelieved, and repackaged into partisan discourse is no longer worth risking one’s life for:

Covering wars for a polarized nation has destroyed the civic mission I once found in journalism. Why risk it all to get the facts for people who increasingly seem only to seek out the information they want and brand the stories and facts that don’t conform to their opinions as biased or inaccurate? And without a higher purpose, what is a career as a reporter? It may count among the so-called “glamor jobs” sought after by recent graduates, but one careers website has listed newspaper reporting as the second worst job in America, based on factors such as stress, pay, and employment uncertainty; toiling as a janitor, dishwasher, or garbage collector all scored better. Even if you love the work, it’s hard not to get worn down by a job that sometimes requires you to risk life and limb for readers who wonder if maybe you suffer all the downsides and hazards just to support some hidden agenda.

A Bit Of Good News From Syria

by Dish Staff

In contrast to the brutal murder of James Foley, another American journalist held captive in Syria since 2012 was released over the weekend by al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra:

Peter Theo Curtis was handed over to UN peacekeepers in the village of al-Rafid, Quneitra, on Sunday. He has since been turned over to representatives from the US government after undergoing medical check-up, the UN said. Curtis’ family thanked both the governments of the US and Qatar, as well as others who helped negotiate his release. According to a statement from his family, Curtis was captured in October 2012 and was reportedly held by the al-Nusra Front or by splinter groups allied with the al-Qaeda-affiliated group.

Elias Groll takes a closer look at Qatar’s role in securing Curtis’s release, which he calls part of the Gulf kingdom’s “double game”:

The beheading of Foley marked an ugly turn in the Syrian civil war, one that has already been marked by awful brutality on all sides of the conflict. Qatar has played a role in fueling that violence, by funneling arms and weapons to Islamist groups. Some of those weapons have ended up in the hands of hard-line radicals. Qatar also provides a home for a handful of influential Islamist leaders, including the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, and Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi, an al Qaeda financier. At the same time, Qatar continues to serve as a vital ally of America in the region, playing host to key U.S. military installations and reveling in its role as a power broker.

Events like Foley’s execution inevitably upset the balance between Qatar’s competing impulses and force its leaders to compensate in one direction or another. Specifically, the gruesome beheading of Foley put intense pressure on the White House to answer for its efforts to secure his release — pressure that Qatar has now slightly relieved. Curtis’s sudden release provides Barack Obama’s administration with a piece of good news — and tangible evidence that Americans can be freed without Washington doling out ransoms.

Keating compares the treatment of Curtis and Foley to illustrate the longstanding, fundamental disagreement over tactics between al-Qaeda central and even more extreme rogue groups like ISIS:

The details of the deal have not been made public. According to the New York Times, Curtis’ family was told by Qatari mediators that no ransom was paid, though it seems likely the group received some concession for his release. Al-Qaida and its affiliates have turned the ransoming of Western hostages into quite a tidy business, taking in more than $125 million in revenue since 2008, mostly from European governments that are more willing than the U.S. or Britain to pay ransoms. Intercepted documents from al-Qaida leaders show how central this revenue has become to the network’s operations. [Jabhat al-]Nusra’s more pragmatic approach, a few days after an ISIS video that seemed deliberately evocative of Zarqawi-era beheadings, shows that the old disagreement over tactics still persists, and has only gotten more public since al-Qaida and ISIS formally severed ties earlier this year.

Foley’s Impossible Ransom, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Bucking the pundit consensus, Leonid Bershidsky argues that the US should not dismiss out of hand the option of paying terrorist groups ransoms for civilian captives like James Foley and Steven Sotloff:

Not leaving the ransom option open fits the logic of war. Either the U.S. Marines will drop out of the sky and destroy the hostage takers — in the case of photojournalist James Foley that didn’t work out — or the terrorists will kill their infidel victim and distribute the fortifying video to their supporters. Yet this approach may not be smart for detective work. Keeping the ransom option open may create opportunities to track down kidnappers and free hostages — and a growing number of successful hostage liberations would be as powerful a deterrent to terrorists as declarations that no money will be paid out. So a policy of refusing to pay isn’t so obviously superior, after all. One thing is for sure, though: More deaths like Foley’s will just raise the savages’ morale.

Michael J. Totten wonders if there isn’t a middle way:

Washington can’t pay ransoms, but it could and probably should offer a large cash reward for intelligence that leads to a successful rescue. Kidnappers might try to collect the reward money themselves, which would make it a ransom by other means, but there’s an easy way around that—kill all the kidnappers. Do not arrest them and send them to Guantanamo. Kill them.

I have no doubt Washington is looking for Sotloff and the others right now. They’ll send men if they think they know where he is. They’ve already tried at least once. We can only hope they’ll succeed before it’s too late. In the meantime, to all of my colleagues: for God’s sake, stay the hell out of Syria.

And Sandy Levinson brings up the uncomfortable truth that a human life isn’t really as “priceless” as we like to think it is:

We know, when we decide to build skyscrapers or major bridges, etc., that people are going to die.  Ditto, incidentally, with regard to raising speed limits on automobiles or continuing to allow the sale of alcohol in bars, etc., etc.  To be sure, we don’t know exactly who is going to die, and that makes all the difference, just as Barack Obama doesn’t know exactly whom he is sentencing to death when deploying troops or allowing the use of drones that will generate “collateral damage.”  For many, that non-specificity makes all the difference. … There is absolutely no excuse for what was done to Mr. Foley, but perhaps we have to treat war journalilsts the way we treat soldiers:  i.e., they voluntarily enlisted in a very dangerous occupation, for a mixture of reasons, including patriotism and devotion to the public weal, but part of the deal is that their lives will be on the line, to be protected only at “acceptable” cost.

Even if it is true that most of us consider our own lives “priceless,” no society has ever operated on that basis, and none ever will.

Unmasking “Jihadi John”

by Jonah Shepp

The UK intelligence agencies claim to have identified the ISIS militant who murdered American journalist James Foley in a video released last week:

According to The Times of London and other sources, “John” is believed to be Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, a 23-year-old man from London, who went to Syria to join Islamist forces last year. His father, Adel Abdel Bary, is an Egyptian-born man who is accused of taking part in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. He was extradited from the U.K. to the U.S. in 2012 and is currently awaiting trial. Bary was an aspiring hip-hop artist who performed under the name L Jinny when he still lived in London. His music has even been played on BBC Radio and there are several YouTube videos of his performances online. It’s believed those videos could have been used to match Bary’s voice to the voice of the man in the video of Foley’s beheading.

As Gary Sick put it in an interview the Dish referred to on Friday, “eventually … justice does catch up with these guys”. If Abdel Bary is indeed the man behind the mask, we hope this is the first step toward bringing him to justice.

Now seems like a good time for this small programming note: The Dish has tried to avoid referring to Foley’s murder as an “execution” or to his killer as an “executioner”, because these terms confer some degree of legitimacy on the act. An execution, properly understood, means the killing of an individual by a state within the confines of its laws. This killing clearly violated Iraqi, American, Islamic, and international law, to say nothing of human decency, and construing it as an execution gives the thugs who carried it out too much credit. As for its perpetrator, he is no dispenser of justice, but rather a depraved criminal who killed a man and made a snuff film.

Let’s never lose sight of the fact that these scumbags are criminals, not warriors. And justice can’t catch up with them soon enough.