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John Cantlie Essay

Five American families, each harboring a grave secret, took their seats around a vast dining table at the home of David Bradley, a Washington, D.C., entrepreneur who owns the media company that publishes TheAtlantic. It was May 13, 2014, and in the garden beyond the French doors, where magnolias and dogwoods were in bloom, a tent had been erected for an event that Bradley’s wife, Katherine, was hosting the following evening. The Bradleys’ gracious Georgian town house, on Embassy Row, is one of the city’s salons: reporters and politicians cross paths at off-the-record dinners with Supreme Court Justices, software billionaires, and heads of state.

The families weren’t accustomed to great wealth or influence. Indeed, most of them had never been to Washington before. Until recently, they had not known of one another, or of the unexpected benefactor who had brought them together. They were the parents of five Americans who had been kidnapped in Syria. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had warned the families not to talk publicly about their missing children—and the captors had threatened to kill their hostages if word leaked out—so each family had been going to work and to church month after month and reassuring colleagues and neighbors and relatives that nothing was wrong, only to come home and face new threats and ransom demands. After hiding the truth for so long, the families were heartened to learn that others were going through the same ordeal, and they hoped that by working together they might bring their children home.

Bradley, who is sixty-two, has a priestly presence: meek, soft-spoken, hands clasped in his lap. He is pale and nearly bald, with a ring of vivid white hair. His courtly demeanor disguises considerable ambition and persistence. His publishing company, Atlantic Media, has amassed half a dozen titles, from National Journal to Quartz. He was drawn into the families’ tragedy because he had helped to free hostages once before. In 2011, Clare Gillis, a freelancer who had contributed a few stories to The Atlantics Web site, was captured in Libya, along with two other reporters, by soldiers loyal to the government of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. (A fourth reporter was killed.) Bradley was surprised to learn that the U.S. government was not involved in negotiating the return of the hostages.

Even though Gillis was not an Atlantic employee, Bradley felt an obligation to help her. He assembled a small team, drawn mostly from his staff, to identify people who might locate Gillis. On a whiteboard, Bradley drew several concentric circles. The smallest represented people in charge of the hostages, such as guards and wardens; a wider circle included military officers and junior members of the Qaddafi administration; wider still was the circle of senior Libyan officials, including Qaddafi and his family. The largest circle contained any people Bradley or his staffers could think of who might have a connection to those in the smaller rings. Bradley called this a network-analysis chart. The idea was that someone would know someone who knew someone who could locate Gillis. The team pinpointed about a hundred people to approach. One led to an American woman, Jacqueline Frazier, who had once lived in Tripoli, serving as the personal assistant to one of Qaddafi’s sons. Frazier volunteered to return to Libya, and she persuaded her contacts in the government to release the reporters, after forty-four days of captivity. It hadn’t been that hard to gain Gillis her freedom. But where would she be had no one tried?

At the dinner in Washington, Bradley urged the families to serve themselves before the main course—chicken pot pie—got cold. When everyone was seated, he suggested going around the table, with each guest telling the others about their missing children.


One of the reporters who had accompanied Gillis out of the Libyan prison was a thirty-seven-year-old freelancer named James Foley. Bradley had never met Foley, but he received a thank-you note after the release. A second note arrived a couple of weeks later, in which Foley said that he hadn’t fully understood how much he owed to Bradley and his team. Bradley was touched that Foley had taken the extra trouble, and presented the second letter to his children as a model of grace. Scarcely a year and a half later, Foley was kidnapped again, in Syria, on Thanksgiving Day, 2012.

Foley’s parents, John and Diane, live in a small town in New Hampshire. John practices internal medicine. Diane worked as a nurse practitioner until she quit to focus on obtaining her son’s freedom. Three of the five mothers at Bradley’s gathering happened to be nurses. Diane had already experienced the journey through gray government offices that the others were about to endure. Her anger and weariness were evident, and some of the parents found her off-putting. But to others her steeliness was inspiring. “She could run General Motors,” one of the mothers said. Diane became the group’s de-facto leader.

As Diane spoke about her son, she mentioned themes that the others recognized in their own children’s stories—courage and idealism chief among them. Jim had been an altar boy in an observant Catholic family, the oldest of five children, growing up in “Norman Rockwell country,” as Diane describes it. After graduating from Marquette University, Foley joined Teach for America and spent three years teaching history and social studies and coaching basketball in a run-down Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. For years afterward, he kept in contact with the kids he taught, through e-mail and Facebook.

Foley was tall and striking, with his mother’s long face and dark features and his father’s jutting Irish chin. Women were drawn to his wide, gap-toothed smile and welcoming eyes. He struck up conversations effortlessly, even in Syria, despite having rudimentary Arabic. He’d pass out cigarettes, trusting in the good will of strangers, while children trailed after him in the streets. Those who knew him well saw another side to him, however—a vulnerability that left him unable to manage the feelings that war stirred up. He was fiercely opposed to violence but helplessly drawn to conflict.

After Foley was freed in the first kidnapping, his relatives joked about hiding his passport. Most of Foley’s work had appeared in GlobalPost, an online news service founded by Philip Balboni. Balboni had offered Foley a desk job in Boston, but after a few months he longed to be back in the field. He returned to Libya in 2011, during the fall of Qaddafi, and the following March he was part of the first wave of Western reporters to enter Syria. The country quickly became a graveyard for correspondents, including Marie Colvin, of the London Sunday Times, and Anthony Shadid, of the New York Times. But the war was heating up, and the migratory troop of war reporters set up camp on the Turkish border. Clare Gillis arrived, as did many of Foley’s colleagues from previous wars.

The friends noticed that Foley had become more introspective. It wasn’t enough for him to bear witness to the chaos in Syria—he had to do something. He set up an online fund-raising campaign that brought in ten thousand dollars for a used ambulance needed by a hospital in Aleppo.

When Diane didn’t hear from Jim on Thanksgiving, she was worried: he always called on holidays. The next day, the phone did ring. It was Gillis. Diane knew immediately that she wasn’t calling to chat.

“I felt shock,” Diane recalled to me.

“Anger,” John added. “Why do we have to go through this again?”

It wasn’t immediately clear how alarmed Foley’s friends and family should be. After all, he had survived the previous kidnapping. It had become an anecdote—confirmation of his bravado. But it was disquieting that there had been no word from his captors. Where was the ransom demand?

The Foleys believed that the Syrian government was holding their son, and in January, 2013, they publicly called for his release. Bradley wrote a note to Diane offering to help. Initially, she thought it unnecessary. Philip Balboni had hired Kroll, the investigations and security-consulting firm, and the F.B.I. was also on the case, so the Foleys felt that they were in good hands. By spring, however, their opinion had changed, especially of officials at the bureau.

“They kept telling us to do nothing,” Diane said.

“And trust them,” John added.

“And telling us that our kid is their highest priority. Which we didn’t believe.”

In April, 2013, Diane asked Bradley if he could put together another team.

Bradley enlisted his general counsel and chief of staff, Aretae Wyler, along with a few others in his office. He also contacted Wendy Kopp, the head of Teach for America, requesting volunteers. This new team, now numbering more than a dozen people, began creating another network-analysis chart.

The F.B.I. and Kroll shared the Foleys’ view that Jim had been taken by the regime. It seemed logical: Shiite gangs affiliated with Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s President, had kidnapped other reporters. (Some of them remain missing.) Sources claimed that Syrian Air Force Intelligence was holding Westerners in a Damascus prison. That seemed better than the alternative. Syria was in tumult, and more than a thousand armed groups roamed the shattered country. Assad’s regime was brutal, but at least it was a government, with interests and alliances that could facilitate a deal. U.S. law forbids paying ransoms to terrorists.

Bradley’s team sought out diplomats and journalists who had fixers in the region. They were looking for members of Assad’s inner circle. Some Syrians living in exile had maintained ties to influential figures, and these élites would have been educated in American schools. Bradley’s team also approached Russian supporters of Assad. But the sources consistently reported that the regime did not have Foley. Bradley recalled, “By summertime, I was of the view that, if this was my child, I’d be looking in the north.” That was isis territory now—a long way from Norman Rockwell country.


“Who is this man?” Nancy Curtis had asked upon being told to get in touch with David Bradley. “Why does he want to help us?” Skeptical by nature, she wasn’t used to asking for favors. A museum administrator, Curtis lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the picture of a New England intellectual: wry and doughty, her white hair chopped into an unruly pageboy. But by the time she attended the dinner her suspicions about Bradley had faded. It was comforting to be among people with the same secret. As Curtis learned about the other children, however, she was distressed to realize that the hostages themselves also carried secrets—ones that could get them killed. That was certainly true of her son.

Peter Theophilus Padnos had a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and he spoke French, German, and Russian. He had been working as a bicycle mechanic in 2004, when he abruptly decided to move to Yemen and study Arabic. It was a year into the second Iraq War, and Americans were intensely unpopular in the region. Padnos had a little nest egg from the sale of his first book, about teaching poetry to prisoners, called “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun.” The title came from an Emily Dickinson poem. That was Theo: erudite but interested in criminals and other outliers, always drawn to extremity.

Yemen fascinated him. He’d never lived in a society where everybody believed in God. He studied at one of the world’s most radical mosques, Dar al-Hadith, where Al Qaeda members had reportedly trained. He wrote a memoir about his experiences, “Undercover Muslim.” It wasn’t hostile, but it was unsparing in its account of the dead-end lives of the students and the propaganda of the imams. At the mosque, Padnos had declared allegiance to Islam in front of witnesses, and so his book seemed tantamount to apostasy—a mortal sin to radical Islamists.

Padnos formally changed his name to Theo Curtis, in order to continue travelling in Muslim countries, but he never bothered to change certain revealing personal details, such as his Facebook page. In the conspiratorial circles that Padnos often passed through, he had the profile of a spy, if not a very careful one.

In October, 2012, he travelled to Antakya, a Turkish border town that served as the informal headquarters of the press corps covering the Syrian conflict. The city had long been a tourist stop for Christian pilgrims. Now it was overrun with refugees, spies, and jihadis. To the east, across a mountain range, was Syria, where a hundred thousand people had already perished.

About fifty journalists were covering Syria at the time; the battle for Aleppo was under way and the war seemed to be nearing resolution. The wire services were still there, and occasionally the networks sent in a team, but most of the journalists were freelancers. They drank in the same bars and slept on one another’s couches and sat in the same cafés in the morning, hiring fixers and making plans for their next trip across the border. They had little money and no security, but they were writing history. Islam was at war with itself, the map of the Middle East was being redrawn, and the freelancers had the story largely to themselves.

Padnos was forty-four, a decade or two older than most of his colleagues. He spent a few days at a ten-dollar-a-night hotel, then rented an apartment with a Tunisian fishmonger. Padnos soon met three young men who claimed to be providing supplies to the Free Syrian Army. At the time, reporters still regularly crossed into Syria: Foley wasn’t kidnapped until a month later. The three men and Padnos went to the border and squeezed through a hole in a barbed-wire fence. Padnos hadn’t told anyone where he was going. Few people even knew that Padnos had been in Antakya.

Nancy Curtis was puzzled when her son stopped writing. He was helping her buy a woodstove for a vacation home that she owned in Vermont, and they had been communicating daily. After three days, she finally got an e-mail. The subject line said, “Hey.” There was no message.

Curtis called her cousin Viva Hardigg. “Something calamitous has happened,” Curtis said. Hardigg enlisted two other cousins: Amy Rosen, who was the chairman of the board of the KIPP charter schools in Newark; and Betsy Sullivan, an editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Rosen had served on Amtrak’s board of directors and knew her way around Washington; Sullivan brought the experience of having been detained by the Bosnian Serb Army while reporting on that conflict. Curtis, Hardigg, Sullivan, and Rosen became known as the All-Girl Team.

Curtis contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross, which often visited prisons. She was hopeful that her son was being held by the Syrian government. The woman she talked to had no information about that, but shared some news. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she said. “But there’s another family in New England you ought to call.” She gave her Diane Foley’s number.

At the time, U.S. government policy was to keep information about hostages strictly secret, for privacy reasons; and yet Diane and Nancy were immensely relieved to learn of another family searching for a son in Syria. They traded information about avenues they had explored and people they had approached—N.G.O. workers, State Department officials, F.B.I. agents—and they rebuked themselves for not having set up emergency contacts for their sons, and for not getting their digital passwords. As each learned more about the other’s son, they saw how much the men had in common. What good friends they’ll be when this is all over, they often said.

One night in May, 2013, Amy Rosen was invited to a dinner that was part of The Atlantics Ideas festival in New York. She intended just to drop by for a drink, but she stuck around when she realized that she was seated next to David Bradley. Rosen had met him socially before. She confided in him about Padnos and the failure of the All-Girl Team to find him. Bradley described his theory of concentric circles, but admitted that his team hadn’t located Foley. They decided to combine efforts.

The first break in the kidnappings occurred on July 29, 2013, when an American photojournalist, Matt Schrier, escaped from his cell in Syria, after seven months of captivity, and crossed into Turkey. He told C. J. Chivers, of the Times, that in January he had been placed in a cell with another American, who was filthy and had a ragged beard. The American said that his captors had accused him of working for the C.I.A. For months, the men were tortured—sometimes by a twelve-year-old who beat them and shocked them with Tasers. They were forced to make videotaped confessions, wearing orange jumpsuits that mimicked the prisoner uniforms worn at the U.S. internment camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Schrier recalled that he and his cellmate had gouged a hole in the wire mesh on one window. Schrier said that he was able to squeeze through, but his cellmate was larger and couldn’t break free. Although the Times didn’t name the other American, Nancy received a call from officials at the State Department two days after Schrier’s escape. We have proof of life on Theo, they said.


Shirley Sotloff felt that she was in a movie, watching people act out roles. Even the Bradleys’ beautiful home, with servers carrying silver trays, resembled a set. And it didn’t seem real when David Bradley said that Secretary of State John Kerry had been at this same table the previous week, and the King of Jordan before that.

Her husband, Art, observed the furnishings in the Bradleys’ house with an appreciative professional eye. His business was organizing home shows—exhibitions offering furnishing ideas. He noticed the hand-carved dining set, the chandelier with actual candles, the pale-yellow fabric covering the dining-room walls.

The Sotloffs, who were from Pinecrest, Florida, a Miami suburb, brought with them Barak Barfi, a researcher for the New America Foundation. He was the best friend of their son, Steven, a journalist who had been held in Syria for nine months. Barfi, brilliant and assertive, was controversial among the families. He clearly felt that he should lead the group, since he spoke fluent Arabic and was by far the most knowledgeable among them about the Middle East. On August 4, 2013, it was Barfi who notified Art that Steven was missing. Art didn’t tell Shirley. He didn’t want to worry her in case Steven suddenly showed up, but after four days Shirley suspected something. Art poured himself a Scotch and gave her the news.

Steven had lived in the Middle East for many years, but hadn’t done much to disguise that he was Jewish; it could be discovered by a Google search or a look at his Facebook page. In 2005, Steven entered the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, an Israeli college, where he played rugby and joined the debate society. He also took Israeli citizenship. He wanted to become a reporter, and wrote to Barfi, then a producer for ABC News affiliates, asking for advice about studying Arabic abroad. Barfi, who was ten years older than Steven, became his mentor. “He was a young, chubby kid,” Barfi recalled. “I told him, ‘You can go to Egypt, which has a good teaching infrastructure, but you’ll be overexposed to Western influences. You could go to Syria, where you won’t be so exposed to the West but will be pursued by security people all the time. The best place is Yemen. There are no Westerners, the state is weak, and you’ll be pretty much left alone.’ ” Steven took his counsel. In Sanaa, he posed as a Chechen-American from a secular Muslim family. “I ‘converted’ in my first week, so I wouldn’t have to deal with all that rubbish,” he wrote to a friend. “lol.

The Arab Spring began in 2010, and aspiring journalists like Sotloff swarmed into the region. Soon he was freelancing for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, and Time. He was in Tahrir Square the day President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, in 2011, and in Libya the following year, where he first met Jim Foley. For Time he provided crucial coverage of the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, where four Americans were killed, including the Ambassador. He wrote about the flow of arms from Libya to Syria, and in December of that year he reported from Aleppo. During that period, when American foreign policy depended on information arising from these zones of conflict, Sotloff never made enough money to have to file a tax return.

The journalists in Antakya maintained a secret Facebook site that functioned as a message board for reporters and aid workers planning to enter Syria. The Turkish airports and train stations were filling up with foreign fighters who were flocking to the conflict—“beirdos,” Jim Foley called them. No one knew what to make of this new element.

Some members of the site began speculating that spotters on the border were selling information about reporters to Islamists. In December, 2012, criminals associated with the Free Syrian Army abducted Richard Engel, an NBC correspondent, and five members of his crew. Two aid workers, an Italian and a British man, were taken in March, 2013; a Danish photographer in May; four French journalists and a German tourist in June. About seventy Syrian reporters had been killed in 2012 and 2013. Because the media observed a blackout on abductions, more reporters kept arriving, not fully aware of the dangers they faced.

Many journalists who were in Antakya at the time speak of having maintained a willful ignorance, even as the risks became obvious. They talked among themselves about the dangers but kept crossing the border, sustained by the adventure, the significance of the story, and the exhilaration of survival. “It’s easy to feel invincible, even with death all around,” Sotloff wrote to Janine di Giovanni, the Middle East editor for Newsweek. “It’s like, This is my movie, sucker—I’m not gonna die.”


David Bradley burst out laughing when Paula and Ed Kassig showed up for dinner that night. Earlier, when Bradley issued the invitation, Ed had nervously asked if there was a dress code. “Black tie, of course,” Bradley had said. Ed arrived in a short-sleeved tattersall shirt with a black tie that he’d cadged from the concierge at the hotel. It became a running joke between them.

At the dinner, Ed and Paula tried to sort out who was who. Some of the other families had brought along an adviser. Barfi, who came with the Sotloffs, had been folded into Bradley’s team, as had Jim Foley’s former girlfriend, April Goble, who runs the KIPP schools in Chicago. Several members of Bradley’s staff were also present. “But you knew the other parents right away,” Ed says.

Paula and Ed live in Indianapolis. She’s a public-health nurse; he teaches high-school biology. He was in the classroom on October 1, 2013, when his phone began vibrating. His flip phone was so old that his pitying students could scarcely recognize it. Sometimes, when he left it sitting on his desk, he returned to find coins left beside it.

Ed’s phone indicated that he’d received an international call. He assumed that it was his son, Peter, who was doing humanitarian work in Turkey, and sometimes crossing into Syria. “I figured, Well, he’ll call back if it’s a big deal,” he recalls. The school day ended and Ed went outside, where buses were loading. “So it’s all this noise of the buses and kids leaving. And the phone rings again. I pick it up—it’s not Peter.” It was a friend of Peter’s. He was trying to explain something, but Ed couldn’t hear clearly, because of the racket. It was homecoming weekend, and as Ed moved to a quieter spot a marching band burst through the doors. Ed couldn’t break away; the drum line seemed to be deliberately trailing him. The one word that registered through the din was “detained.”

Unlike the other families, Ed and Paula received a message from isis right away. “It was almost cordial,” Paula recalled: “ ‘We have your son. We are treating him as a guest.’ ” A second, more ominous, note followed. “You say he is an aid worker. We know that all Westerners who say they are E.M.T.s or aid workers are just spies and just sent over as part of the war between the West and the East.” The captors asked for a hundred million, but didn’t specify dollars or euros. They also demanded the release of all Muslim prisoners worldwide. “Like that was something we were going to be able to do,” Paula said.

isis warned that Peter would be killed if word of the kidnapping leaked out, so the Kassigs bore the additional weight of having their friends guess what might be going on. People were always asking about Peter’s welfare. “I hope he’s not in Syria!” people said, and Ed responded, “Don’t worry, he’s not.” He was playing with words: technically, he figured, Peter was in the Islamic State.

Like Theo Padnos and Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig also had something to hide. He had served in Iraq in the Army Rangers. He left with an honorable medical discharge after only four months at war, and friends weren’t sure what had happened. He returned to Indianapolis and trained to be an emergency medical technician, then studied political science at Butler University, but he was restless and looking for direction. He got married, but the union quickly dissolved. Kassig was a “driven soul,” his parents acknowledge. During his senior year, he told Ed and Paula that he was spending spring break camping in the Smoky Mountains. A week later, he called them from Beirut, where he was working in a refugee camp, watching people die in front of him. In a few hours, his flight was scheduled to leave, but he couldn’t abandon them. He said that he now knew what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

A CNN reporter later filmed him in a hospital bandaging wounded Syrian refugees. He still wore his hair in a military-style buzz cut, and his arms were covered with tattoos. “This is what I was put here to do,” he told the reporter. “I guess I am just a hopeless romantic, and I am an idealist, and I believe in hopeless causes.”

In 2012, Kassig established his own N.G.O., called Special Emergency Response and Assistance. His goal was to provide food and blankets and medical supplies where they were most needed. He enlisted Ed and Paula to raise money at their Methodist church. In Turkey, he taught emergency care to reporters and photographers on the border. One of his friends coined a verb, “to Kassig,” which meant “to selflessly put oneself in harm’s way in order to help others in need, all the while looking suave and sexy.”

Kassig had been friends with Steven Sotloff, and joined the effort to find him. “We have to be ruthlessly efficient and professional in securing information and his eventual safe release,” he wrote to a friend. “Someone we know knows where Steven is and who has him. This can go 1 of 2 ways, either we do right and get our beloved friend back, or this goes south and he gets hurt or worse.” But two months passed without any significant leads.

Shortly before Kassig was abducted, he admitted in a call to his parents that he was “a little more worried about this trip.” He had promised to deliver medical supplies to Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria, where his medical expertise was desperately needed. The city once had about five hundred doctors; now there were only five. Factions and allegiances were shifting, Peter told his parents. Ed and Paula didn’t know exactly what he meant, but it sounded dangerous.

Soon after Kassig entered Syria, he called a co-worker. He said that he’d been stopped at a roadblock and told to report to an isis commander. If you don’t hear from me in several hours, Kassig said, institute the emergency protocol. That was when Ed got the call.

Later, a European hostage who had been held with Steven told Ed and Paula about the day Peter was put in their cell. “Steve!” Peter cried. “I finally found you!”


Carl Mueller was working in his body shop, in Prescott, Arizona, when he got a call from a man he’d never met, Barak Barfi, who said that he knew about the abduction of his daughter, Kayla. Carl froze. He and his wife, Marsha, had stopped seeing friends because people always asked about Kayla, and they didn’t want to lie.

Kayla was well known and admired in town. In high school, she received a Presidential medal for public service, and she won a five-hundred-dollar prize for her local philanthropic efforts. She gave the money to charity. At Northern Arizona University, she founded a branch of Amnesty International and a service organization for veterans while also working for peace groups and teaching anger management in the county jail. Despite all this activity, she graduated in two years, impatient to get out into the world.

In India, she worked with orphans; in Tibet, she taught English to refugees. Kayla had grown up a Baptist, but she was fascinated by different religions. She was devoted to the teachings of the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, and for a time considered becoming a nun in his Buddhist community in France. But Kayla was an activist by nature. In Israel, she worked with African refugees, and in Palestine she stood outside houses scheduled to be bulldozed by the Israeli military. “Let me live on both sides of the wall before I act,” she wrote in her diary. In the fall of 2010, she came home, suffering from typhoid and parasites, and recuperated for a year while volunteering at an AIDS clinic—which she took over—and working at a women’s shelter at night. She hoped to join the Peace Corps; she had been told that if she became fluent in French she would be sent to Africa, so she took a job as an au pair in France. Before she left, she cut off her ponytail to donate it to Locks of Love, which provides hairpieces for children with cancer. She made Marsha promise to send it.

Given the scale of suffering in Syria, it wasn’t surprising that Kayla was drawn there. She was abducted the same day as Sotloff, just before her twenty-fifth birthday.

Kayla had been missing for a few months when Barfi called Carl to say that a wealthy man in Washington, D.C., wanted to help the Muellers and others in the same situation. Carl and Marsha had been dreading that the news of Kayla’s abduction would get out and the kidnappers would follow through on their threat. Now somebody knew. What kind of name was Barak Barfi? Was he one of the terrorists? Carl went behind his shop, knelt down, and prayed.

Of all the families, the Muellers were the most isolated. Even at the Bradleys’ home, Carl and Marsha were anxious. The F.B.I. had assured them that Kayla would probably be safe, because she was a woman. Was it wise to get her case mixed up with others?

Marsha quickly felt a sense of solidarity with the other mothers, but Carl remained mistrustful. Bradley seemed like something out of a comic-book fantasy: a person with vast resources who could summon powerful people at will. And, given that Bradley was the publisher of TheAtlantic, he wondered: Was this just an elaborate way of getting a story?

Less than a month before the dinner, four French journalists had been released by isis, apparently ransomed by the French government, along with five members of Doctors Without Borders. One of the journalists told Carl that Kayla had been held in another cell at the prison, and that he’d often heard her speaking French to one of the Doctors Without Borders prisoners. But in recent months Kayla had been in solitary. Sometimes the men were able to leave notes for her in the toilet. The day the French journalists were freed, the guards brought Kayla to them, so they could confirm that she was alive. She gave the journalists a letter to take to her parents, which Marsha read aloud at the dinner table.

“Everyone, if you are receiving this letter it means I am still detained,” the letter begins. It was written in tiny script on paper ripped out of a spiral notebook, and full of abbreviations. “Please know that I am in a safe location, completely unharmed + healthy (put on weight in fact); I have been treated w/the utmost respect + kindness.” She had wanted to write “a well thought out letter” but had been given the opportunity only at the last minute. “Just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears,” she wrote. “If you could say I have ‘suffered’ at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness.”

Kayla listed some things she thought of with special fondness: her little niece, her first family camping trip. She fantasized about how much she’d love the reunion at the airport when they finally met again. The letter ended forcefully: “I DO NOT want the negotiations for my release to be your duty, if there is any other option take it. All my everything, Kayla.”

The other parents were moved by Kayla’s letter and by the picture Carl painted of their daughter, who seemed like a cross between a bare-footed sprite and a Buddhist saint. He called her Special K. Of course, all the hostages were remarkable people, and their finest qualities had led them to Syria. “If anything bound us together, it was our children, and their courage and compassion,” John Foley recalled.

Earlier, Philip Balboni, the GlobalPost founder, had asked how many parents wanted the U.S. military to attempt a rescue. Not a single hand went up. It seemed too dangerous. Now Bradley suggested that the families consider publicizing the kidnappings. The Foleys agreed with Bradley that going to the media might put pressure on the U.S. government and, possibly, the hostage-takers. The Sotloffs were willing to consider this, but the Kassigs were so opposed that the idea was tabled. How could you know if isis was bluffing with its threat to kill the hostages?

The families tried to select one member of the team to deal with ransom demands collectively. But who could be trusted with the lives of their children? Barfi desperately wanted this responsibility, but some parents were wary. He was aggressive, and perhaps he was too heartbroken by Sotloff’s abduction to think clearly. The Kassigs had brought along an adviser—Peter’s partner in his N.G.O.—and they proposed him instead. A power struggle among the family advocates followed, which resulted in no one being chosen for the role. “Either I should have been more restrained or I should have gotten on top of the table and said, ‘Your kids are in dire danger,’ ” Barfi recalls. “They decided to go with unanimity. I said, ‘That’s like the Arab League—you’ll never get anything done. You need a leader.’ ”

The families signed a statement authorizing Bradley to receive updates about the hostages from the F.B.I. and other government agencies. The families left the dinner feeling hopeful and relieved: Bradley was a powerful champion, and they now had one another. Art Sotloff impulsively hugged Bradley, who recoiled slightly. He has a formal manner, and the families quickly concluded that he doesn’t like to be touched.

Before everyone left, Bradley expressed the hope that they would soon meet again—with their children, in the same lovely room.

At the White House

On Saturday October 4 we woke up to the news that looked depressingly inevitable. Alan Henning, a taxi driver from Salford, who had been captured in Syria last December while delivering aid to refugees, appears to have been beheaded by his terrorist captors. He appeared at the end of a video showing the apparent beheading of Scottish aid worker David Haines last month, in an indication that he would soon suffer the same fate.

David Cameron, the prime minister, responded to the news: “It is senseless. It is completely unforgivable… We must take action against it and we must find those responsible.”

At least two more Western hostages are still in captivity. One, Peter Edward Kassig, an American soldier, ominously appeared at the end of this latest video. The other, John Cantlie, a photojournalist from Surrey, was abducted in Syria nearly two years ago along with American journalist James Foley, who was filmed for his own apparent execution in the desert by his captors in August. Cantlie has appeared in three recent videos reading scripted messages, which included a request that the West pay ransom in exchange for the hostages’ release.

David Cameron has made it very clear that this will not happen under any circumstances. At last month’s NATO summit in Newport, Wales, the prime minister confirmed the UK’s policy on the matter: “We won’t pay ransoms to terrorists who kidnap our citizens.”

The US government takes exactly the same line. Following the deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, another journalist, there were even reports that the US authorities put pressure on the families of the victims not to pay ransom by warning them that doing so would break the law.

Not every country seems to take this position, though. An investigation by the New York Times in July found strong evidence that some European governments do pay ransom to Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups. The report claimed that this had amounted to US$125m since 2008, and US$66m in the last year alone.

Moral principles

So who is right and who is wrong? There is some obvious good sense behind the UK government’s stated position. The payment could encourage further hostage taking and the money paid might be used to further terrorism.

Ethically, we must also remember that it matters not merely what is done and what the outcomes of actions are. It often matters how and why it is done and who does it. For instance, members of a jury have a moral duty to disregard the anticipated consequences of their verdict. They ought to declare that an accused rapist is not guilty if they think the case against him leaves a reasonable element of doubt regardless of the possible effects of their verdict on future instances of such crimes.

But having said that, we must now get back to first principles. Suppose that a kidnapper threatened to kill, say, my child if I did not pay a modest ransom for him. If the threat were a realistic one, and there were no other feasible way of securing their safe release, it would surely be morally obligatory for me to pay the money. To let the child die in order that further acts of kidnapping would not be encouraged might be considered by some people to be a breach of the moral duty of care of a parent.

In a similar way, it might seem reasonable that a state has, by virtue of its power and authority, a moral duty of care towards its citizens. For instance, not only should it not kill them, it should not let them die unnecessarily if it can take reasonable steps to prevent their deaths.

As the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes notably argued, self-preservation is the basic function of and justification of civil society. It seems plausible to say that the state has a duty to try to uphold the human right to life of each of its citizens and to try to protect them from illegal violence wherever it occurs and whatever its source. By extension, I would argue that the state has a prima facie moral duty to rescue its citizens by paying ransom to their captors - a presumption in favour of paying if all other things are equal.

Presumptions and exceptions

Having said that, I would not call this an absolute duty. There are various factors that I would suggest as exceptions – and beyond these there may be others. For instance, sometimes, there will be no basis for confidence that the payment of a ransom would actually secure the safe release of a hostage.

Sometimes the price demanded will be too high. A ransom that ran into the tens or even hundreds of millions of pounds would surely be more than what the state can reasonably be expected to pay. This follows from the fact that the state is not morally obliged to always do all that might be required to save the life of one of its citizens. If someone requires extremely expensive medical treatment to maintain their life, the state is surely not morally obliged to pay up.

Equally if someone voluntarily enters a dangerous part of a foreign country contrary to the advice and wishes of their government, they have to an extent forfeited their right to the protection of their state. You could argue that the government has already discharged its duty of care and is not necessarily obliged to do what would be required to rescue them now that they had been taken hostage.

Exceptions to exceptions

On the other side of the ledger will be some factors that might counteract these exceptions. One might be that many hostages are in jeopardy. Another might be that the hostage was put in danger at the behest of the state – perhaps because they were a government employee, for example.

Or what if, say, Prince Charles were taken hostage? What if a citizen were snatched at random from a street in, say, Glasgow or London? Would it not be justifiable to pay a modest ransom to save their lives and to avoid the loss of political face that their widely publicised executions might produce?

Where does this leave the UK government in relation to the two current captives? We can’t comment on the size of the ransom or the realistic chances of them being freed, but both men were captured in Syria at a time when it was clearly very dangerous to be there. You might counter that their professions or reasons for going justified their decisions to go there. We need foreign journalists to take risks to tell us what is happening in the world. Aid workers often work in dangerous areas because it is exactly where they are most needed.

Even if these activities didn’t amount to a good enough reason for being in a dangerous place, I would be inclined to pay a reasonable ransom for them on charitable grounds – you wouldn’t admit an exception, but you would say they should be rescued out of human decency.

Either way, my main argument is that there are far too many complexities in this area to be able to rule out paying ransom in all cases. But before we condemn Cameron too strongly, an episode from the past comes to mind. During the years of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the UK government always made clear that it would not negotiate with terrorists. Yet as we now know, in the years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, it was secretly doing exactly that. It could well be that the UK government sometimes does exactly the same thing with regards to hostages and ransom. And if all that is actually happening, that the UK is taking an uncompromising position in public, this is a different matter entirely.

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