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'New Yorker' On Secret Civilian Efforts To Save America's ISIS Hostages


And let's focus now on the experience of five families of hostages who were kidnapped in Syria. Lawrence Wright tells their stories in the latest New Yorker online today. And he joins us now from our New York bureau. Good morning.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, the names are, sadly, too familiar.


MONTAGNE: James Foley, as we just heard, Steven Sotloff, Kayla Mueller, all held by ISIS and killed in Syria. And these parents all felt a little, as we've just heard from Jackie, like the U.S. government was an obstacle to freeing their children. Explain a little more about that.

WRIGHT: There are several ways in which the government actually obstructed their search. One was to threaten prosecution if they tried to ransom their children. And none of these families had the means to pay the kinds of ransoms that were being demanded, which ranged between 5 million euro and a hundred-million euro, plus freeing a Muslim prisoner. So, you know, these are things that they couldn't do. So there were people that might have supported them, but they were also threatened with prosecution if they contributed to the material aid of terrorism. That is the fabric under which this law has been created. And it - if you are kidnapped by a criminal gang, there would be no such prohibition. But because there are terrorists - or have been designated terrorists - it's considered against U.S. law to pay ransom. And it paralyzed the families because, you know, even if they could have paid, they were subject to prosecution. But they couldn't, so they couldn't go out and ask supporters for money either because they would place them in jeopardy.

MONTAGNE: Right. And they were also all under a sort of code of secrecy, the idea being that if anybody said that their child, their young person - they're all adults who were kidnapped, the hostages - but if they said they were hostages, that they would be killed simply because it was made public.

WRIGHT: Well, this came from both sides, honestly. The FBI advised them - strongly urged them not to reveal that their child had been kidnapped. And at the same time, ISIS was saying we'll kill them. So, you know, there was a strong compulsion not to make any noise about their sons or their daughter being kidnapped. But on the other hand, that kind of media blackout played to the strength of ISIS and the government. As long as these families were divided and quiet and unknown, they had absolutely no influence with either side.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, as it happened in 2012 and '13, as you write, these kidnappings were happening, and because they were secret, a lot of journalists kept - or NGO folks - helping people float into Syria, not quite...


MONTAGNE: Realizing how bad the danger was. But let me ask you. These families were brought together by the entrepreneur David Bradley, who owns Atlantic Media. And Bradley had done this before, you write, managing to get released one of their freelance writers who had been kidnapped in Libya. So what did he bring to this new effort from that experience to free the five hostages in Syria?

WRIGHT: Well, to start with, he was not a governmental entity. Yeah, he was a - you know, he could act freely. Previously, when Clare Gillis, who was a freelancer for The Atlantic, had been taken with three other reporters in Libya, he, David Bradley, overheard at the water fountain that, you know, one of their freelancers had been taken. And he asked, well, who's looking for her? And no one was. So he is a fanatic about research, and so he thought, this may be something I can do. And so he developed a chart, and they found, you know, areas of influence - someone who would know someone who would know where Clare was located. And they did actually find a woman who had been a realtor in Beverly Hills who had worked for one of Gaddafi's sons, and she went in at David's urging and negotiated the release of Clare Gillis and two other reporters, one of whom was Jim Foley.

MONTAGNE: By coincidence, in a sense.

WRIGHT: By coincidence.

MONTAGNE: This was Libya, not Syria. And this was...

WRIGHT: That's right.

MONTAGNE: A year-and-a-half earlier. And that is one of his links to this. But doing what he did in Libya did not, as it turns out, translate very well in Syria.

WRIGHT: You know, he would never have gotten involved in this, he told me, had it been the case that he had known that this was not a governmental entity holding these people. He thought he could use the same technique that he'd used to free Clare. It had been fairly easy. But in this case, when he discovered that the Syrian regime was not actually holding the people that he was searching for, it became immensely more difficult.

MONTAGNE: But we know now four of the five were killed.

WRIGHT: Right.

MONTAGNE: One of the five hostages you write about is Theo Padnos, who, at 44, was quite a bit older than the other hostages. He was saved. What was it that David Bradley did for him?

WRIGHT: He went to Qatar with Ali Soufan, who was a legendary former FBI agent who has formed his own security company. And Ali has an office in Doha. And the Qataris are influential with many of these radical Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria. So Ghanim al-Kubaisi, who is the head of intelligence, was very moved by their story. And he actually sent an operative into Syria, who was, by the way, captured by one of these groups. And he had to do a lot of fast talking to explain that he really was a representative of the Qatari government that was trying to free one of these hostages. And according to Ghanim al-Kubaisi, you know, they have influence with these groups. He didn't say that they paid a ransom. But they influenced these groups because they depend on Qatar for support, and so they did release him.

MONTAGNE: How do you think these five hostages, four of whom were killed very publicly and painfully, all Americans - how did they affect President Obama's decision to change the policy on hostages?

WRIGHT: Well, listen; this was a wrenching experience for the families and for the government. And the government looked, you know, very incompetent and uncaring in terms of taking care of these families and taking into account their needs. And, once again, there were these conflicts among the different agencies. The FBI is really not very well-equipped to work in these foreign countries. They have to get the permission of the foreign country. They have to get the permission of the CIA. There's no other agency equipped to do that. The Department of Defense was called in at the last minute. There was no surveillance. You know, no one, really, was taking care of the families, all of those things that the government hopes to address in this new policy review.

MONTAGNE: That's Lawrence Wright. His piece online today in The New Yorker is called "Five Hostages." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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