Posted by Wordsmith on 13 January, 2017 at 8:56 am. 7 comments already!


On September 2, 2014, ISIS beheaded journalist Steven Sotloff. And aired video of the execution murder.

Last weekend, Sotloff’s parents appeared on 60 Minutes:

He didn’t hear from his son. Not just for four days. It was four excruciating months. Then, finally they got a ransom letter with demands for the government to free all the Muslims in U.S. custody.

Shirley Sotloff: “Then there is a last option. €100 million will secure Steven’s release.”

Lesley Stahl: –which is something like 100–

Art Sotloff: $137 million.

Lesley Stahl: What was your reaction?

Shirley Sotloff: Reaction was how the hell are we going to get this money together?

They thought the U.S. government would help them, but they were bewildered and then infuriated when they say they met a stone wall, the U.S. policy forbidding the paying of ransom.

My heart breaks for his parents; any family member of any terrorist hostage held for ransom. But the Sotloffs must understand the sound reasons why the U.S.- has a no ransom policy for civilians (something all nations should have). The full 60 Minutes story can be found here.

Lisa Monaco, assistant to President Obama for counterterrorism, oversaw the hostage crisis.

Lisa Monaco: These are horrible choices. On the one hand, if you don’t pay a ransom, you are putting an innocent life at risk. On the other hand, if you do, you’re fueling the very activity that’s put them at risk in the first place.

Lesley Stahl: Did you feel ever that the policy might be wrong?

Lisa Monaco: The policy that’s been a decades-old policy of not paying ransom, I think is the right policy.

Lesley Stahl: So you didn’t question that.

Lisa Monaco: We didn’t. We believed that that was important to maintain.

But with the exception of the UK, most European countries do pay ransom — without publicly admitting it. Steven was held with 22 other hostages, including the three Americans James Foley, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, who were all killed. Once the European governments paid ransom, ISIS released their citizens, one of whom smuggled out this letter from Steven.

Art Sotloff: He was speaking how he can’t stand seeing all the captives leave from all different countries. How could the United States just stand by and not do anything?

I know this may come across as harsh to some folks, but Sotloff knew the risks; and was brave enough to go into a war zone, anyway. The U.S. wasn’t just standing by and doing nothing, simply because it refuses to play ball with terrorist coercion. President Obama ordered a huge military operation- at risk of soldier lives- into Syria in hopes of saving the hostages. The U.S. government sought avenues to rescuing our countrymen. Paying ransom, however, just isn’t one of them. It does not equate to “just stand by and not do anything.”

As the European hostages came out and spoke of mock executions and waterboardings,

Oh, yeah…that topic.

the Sotloffs decided they would try to raise at least some of the money themselves. But then they and the other U.S. families attended a meeting in Washington with officials on the National Security Council.

Art Sotloff: All of us were saying, “Well, why can’t we try to save our kids? And they said, “Because it’s against the law. We do not negotiate with terrorists.”

Lesley Stahl: Did they say you would be prosecuted?

Art Sotloff: They said, “You could be prosecuted, and also your donors could be prosecuted.”

Lesley Stahl: So if I gave you money, I could be prosecuted?

Shirley Sotloff: Yes–

Art Sotloff: Correct.

Lesley Stahl: Did anybody say, “Are you kidding me?”

To Lesley Stahl, I say, “Are YOU kidding me?”

To pay ISIS ransom funds their terror and invites more of the same. By doing so, ransom-payers endangers the lives of future victims. I understand the selfishness of doing anything and everything for a loved one; but it is pure selfishness for not considering the ramifications to a problem, greater than self.

Lesley Stahl: But was that the policy? Was that true? Could they have actually been prosecuted? Could someone who contributed to pay ransom also be prosecuted?

Lisa Monaco: So what’s true is that the Justice Department has never prosecuted a family or friends of a family that has paid a ransom.

Lesley Stahl: But was it the policy?

Lisa Monaco: Well, what’s, the, the policy is the United States Government will not pay ransoms or make concessions to terrorist hostage takers.

That policy is based in part on a presumption that paying ransom invites more hostage taking. But that is refuted by a new study that examined the case of every known Western hostage taken since 911. It was co-authored by Peter Bergen, a counterterrorism expert, for the non-partisan New America Foundation.

Peter Bergen: They don’t know necessarily you’re American when they take you. It’s sort of a target of opportunity. So some countries are known to pay ransom – the French, the Germans, the Spanish.

Lesley Stahl: Even though, they don’t admit it.

Peter Bergen: They don’t admit it, but they do. Their citizens have much better outcomes than Americans. Americans are huge outliers here. You’re twice as likely to have a negative outcome compared to every other Western hostage.

Lesley Stahl: You say negative outcome. You mean murdered.

Peter Bergen: Murdered, die in captivity or just remain in captivity.

Fourteen of the European hostages held with Steven made it home. Those from countries that don’t pay ransom didn’t: four Americans and two Brits died.

Yes, of course. And the reason for those 4 American and 2 British deaths is not only due to ISIS; but also those European countries who are willing to pay ransom. If all countries refused to pay ransom- ever- then the business of kidnapping for ransom would dry up and be pointless.

Lesley Stahl: I keep playing in my own head this horrible situation where the American hostages watched the other ones be set free. And I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if, if our government did what the European governments did, which was pay ransom but then deny it in order to save their citizens. Why couldn’t we have done that?

The horrible situation of the American hostages watching others being set free would not be happening if not for European governments who are willing to pay ransom. They also would not have been kidnapped in the first place.

Lisa Monaco: We’d still be fueling their terror activity. Whether it’s hostage taking or whether it’s terrorist plots, to kill Americans here in the homeland or elsewhere, is not activity that the United States government should be in the business of funding.

Lesley Stahl: What do you say to critics of the policy of not paying ransom? That the beheadings of the Americans ended up having more value to ISIS than any money would have been. That’s really what put them on the international map. These beheading videos were a gold mine for ISIS. Do you, do you see it that way?

Lisa Monaco: I don’t.

That’s twisted logic. So fund terror attacks to prevent terror propaganda? And in the process perpetuate future kidnappings? If ISIS wants to put out terror videos for recruiting and propaganda terror, they only need kidnap for the purposes of doing so. They’re not required to kidnap for the sole purpose of ransoming hostages.

Art Sotloff: Going back to what President Obama said to us in person that he would do anything in his power to save his children if he was in the same situation. And I say that he should put himself in the same situation. And I think that the government has a responsibility to protect its citizens in whatever way that they can.

Sotloff’s father still doesn’t get it. President Obama’s expressing empathy and sympathy from the perspective of a father, himself; but as PotUS, his hands are tied. The murder of 1 is not as if all of mankind has been murdered; but the ransom of 1 will endanger the lives of many others. It cannot be justified, objectively speaking. To do so is to claim that Sotloff’s son’s life is more important than the lives of many others.

After the murder of fellow journalist-hostage James Foley,

The Sotloffs then received an audio message that sounds like Steven was forced to record, designed to pressure the U.S. government. It was given to them by the FBI.

“To Mom, I do not have much time and will probably not get this opportunity again so I would like to get straight to the point. My life depends on Obama’s next decision. Mom, please don’t let Obama kill me. Mom you can still save my life just like the families of my previous cellmates whom I’m sure you’ve met. Fight for me, I love you.”

The Sotloffs should have our compassion even if we disagree with their willingness to give ransom to ISIS in exchange for the life of their son. When it’s personal, who knows? We might fall into the same temptation. What we wouldn’t do for a loved one. The Sotloffs should find peace though in understanding- in fathoming the logic and ultimate compassion of the U.S. government’s policy position in not negotiating ransoms with terrorists. The purpose of that policy is to save a greater number of lives and prevent future Sotloffs from happening.

Shirley Sotloff: It’s a human life. How do you let an American go like that, just let them be killed and murdered? Every human is valuable. Everybody has a family, and they want them to come home.

And hence, the policy.

USA Today had an Editorial Board article in wake of Sotloff’s beheading that was spot on:


“Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil,” one al-Qaeda leader wrote to another in 2012, marveling over the amount of money terrorist groups can extort from the West with little effort.

Indeed, al-Qaeda and its franchises have taken in more than $125 million in ransom since 2008, according to an estimate by The New York Times, including $66 million in the last year alone. The money makes terror groups bigger and more difficult to defeat — and more likely to take additional hostages.

What to do? The story of the Somali pirates is instructive. When pirates were first seizing ships off the East African coast, ship owners treated ransom payments as a cost of doing business. But that just encouraged more piracy. Eventually, owners began hardening their vessels and putting armed teams onboard to fight back. The number of hijacked ships fell dramatically.


When paying ransom is the only policy, you’ll just pay more of it, enriching and strengthening the kidnappers. What works is refusing to pay. This can seem outrageously callous, but there’s evidence that it can reduce the number of kidnappings as long as the target nations stick together.

That’s not happening. The U.S. and British governments refuse to pay, but France, Switzerland, Spain and other European nations make payments or arrange for them to be made, while claiming not to do so. This makes kidnapping a profit center.

The cost of U.S. policy is easy to see: the horrific beheadings of Foley and Sotloff by a masked ISIS thug. The benefits are less visible: fewer hostages taken and less funding for terrorist groups.

Just three of 53 hostages taken by al-Qaeda and its affiliates over the past five years have been Americans, according to The Economist. This suggests that the extremists realize U.S. citizens aren’t lucrative targets. Further, statistics seem to confirm the high cost of paying kidnappers: Two University of Texas researchers found that every hostage ransom produces nearly three new kidnappings.

It’s not as if U.S. authorities never negotiate. There’s an obvious exception for bringing home captive American servicemembers because the military’s no-one-left-behind commitment helps troops face combat.

National policy should make no such exception for civilians, even if families and employers choose another course. What makes sense for a government can be unendurable at a personal level, and blocking family members or colleagues from doing whatever they can to rescue a kidnap victim would betray American values.

In practical terms, though, the price demanded by groups such as ISIS has gotten so high that only government can afford it. That’s further proof, if any were needed, that the way to try to save hostages is to send in special forces. And the way to deal with terrorist kidnappers is to kill them, not buy them off.

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