In early October, New York lawyer Stanley Cohen found himself at the forefront of a private effort to negotiate the release of Islamic State captive Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig, documented in a recent report by The Guardian. Cohen, whose past legal clients have included members of Hamas and Hezbollah, used his extensive contacts in the region to help arrange a promising dialogue between a prominent Jordan-based Salafi Islamist scholar and his counterpart in Islamic State.
Barely a month later, Kassig was dead at the hands of his captors — thanks to U.S. authorities who refused to intervene with a friendly government, Cohen now says.
Kassig, an ex-U.S. Army Ranger turned aid worker, was captured by the Islamic State in October 2013 while on a mission to deliver food and medical supplies to civilians in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. In a desperate effort to help secure the Iraq War veteran’s release, Palestinian friends of Kassig reached out to Cohen at the beginning of October in the hopes that he could help broker a negotiation to free Kassig.
While he lacked connections with Islamic State itself, Cohen was able to reach out to Jordan-based Islamist scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and convince him to open discussions with Turki Binali, a one-time protege of Maqdisi’s who had since turned radical and joined with I.S. The goal of the dialogue was to free Kassig and create an agreement that would preclude further executions of Western hostages at the hands of Islamic State. This, in turn, would be achieved by convincing Binali, one of the most prominent religious authorities within I.S., to officially forswear execution tactics. Maqdisi, a popular Salafi scholar who referred to Binali in discussions as “his ungrateful son”, was also perceived as being well-placed to achieve this goal.
While arranged by Cohen, the dialogue between the parties proceeded with the consent of FBI officials, whom Cohen says gave assurances regarding the safety of its participants.
The negotiations showed promise and succeeded in temporarily forestalling Kassig’s execution. But they ultimately faltered after Jordanian police suddenly arrested Maqdisi on October 27th on a charge of “incitement“, purportedly for an online blog post he had written before negotiations began that had characterized the bombing campaign against Islamic State as a “crusade”.
With the arrest of the main interlocutor seeking Kassig’s release, Cohen’s backchannel to Islamic State was severed. Kassig is believed to have been executed not long after, on November 16.
Speaking to The Intercept over the past week, Cohen alleged that the U.S. government prioritized political considerations over the well being of Kassig and other hostages and declined to take steps within its power to secure his safety.
“After the arrest of Maqdisi, it was easily within the power of U.S. government officials to call their counterparts in Jordan and ask for his release so that the negotiations could continue,” Cohen said. “By refusing to do so, the U.S. government all but guaranteed the murder of Kassig.”
In emails provided to The Intercept by Cohen, FBI agents assigned to the case expressed reticence about the prospect of an official intervention with Jordan to secure Maqdisi’s release. This, despite the knowledge that the negotiations being led by Maqdisi offered the only viable hope for a settlement which might secure Kassig’s safety.
While the FBI has been circumspect about its reasons for not intervening more forcefully after Maqdisi’s arrest, Cohen speculated that high-level officials may have become wary of what they saw as a burgeoning rapprochement between Islamic State ideologues and prominent Islamists such as Maqdisi. Although Cohen can’t be certain there was no back-channel dialog on the issue between the U.S. and Jordan, his position is that the U.S. government showed insufficient commitment to intervene on Kassig’s behalf. The situation, he believes, could easily have been resolved at the executive level if government officials made it a priority, given relatively close U.S-Jordan ties, particularly around counterterrorism.
Neither the FBI nor the Department of Justice could be reached for comment.
Maqdisi, who at one time was a mentor to Binali, has been a vituperative opponent of the tactics and ideology of Islamic State, a radical group whose brutality has managed to draw the ire of even organizations such as Al Qaeda. Maqdisi has himself long been a controversial figure in Islamist circles and has in past helped inspire militants such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda member who attacked U.S. forces as well as Iraqi civilians and opposition factions. In recent years, however, Maqdisi has emerged as something of a critic of the sectarianism and extremism of more radical militant groups. His beliefs, antithetical to both Western notions of democracy and the nihilism of the Islamic State’s nascent “caliphate,” made him a seemingly suitable interlocutor for the Kassig negotiation. According to Cohen, Maqdisi, through his efforts in this matter and his public opposition to the killing of civilians, “has done far more to try and secure the safety of American hostages than the American government has done itself.”
“The U.S. government did not want to see people such as Maqdisi start to build agreements with ISIS (Islamic State) as a result of this issue with Kassig”, Cohen said, adding, “If [Kassig] had to die in order to prolong the divisions between ISIS and other so-called radical Islamist scholars that was a price they were willing to pay.”
Kassig is one of several Western aid workers and journalists who have been executed by Islamic State militants in recent months. The group has repeatedly sought to use their captives as propaganda tools, broadcasting statements and footage of executions around the world.
The U.S., for its part, has come under scrutiny for its failure to secure the release of citizens who have fallen hostage to Islamic State and other militant organizations. A botched raid by U.S. Special Forces in Yemen earlier this month resulted in the death of Luke Somers, an American held hostage by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In Somers’ case, it also appears that steps taken by the United States led either directly or indirectly to the termination of negotiations which may have secured his release.
With regards to Kassig, Cohen is unequivocal that the U.S. government and its allies undertook actions which they knew would result in Kassig’s death. “After the Jordanians arrested Maqdisi, everyone knew what would happen. Obama, Kerry, could have called King Abdullah and asked for his release in order to help save the life of an American citizen and to potentially stop future attacks against journalists and aid workers.”
“They chose not to, and I believe that’s why Kassig is no longer alive today.”
Photo: Courtesy Kassig Family/AP