The families of Americans held hostage in the Middle East are used to counting the days their loved ones have been in captivity. But now, they’re counting the days left in President Obama’s administration—and are fearful that if some deal isn’t brokered to bring their family member home before he leaves office, the window of opportunity will have closed.
It’s a sentiment shared by some U.S. officials working to secure the hostages’ release: Come January 2017, a new administration will take power, and in the bureaucratic reshuffling that accompanies every transition, momentum to resolve the cases that has been building in recent months may be lost.
“Obama’s only going to be president for four months. He will leave, as will a lot of people who’ve been working for him, and new people will have to spend time getting up to speed,” said one individual close to the negotiations who, like four others interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified by name given the sensitivity of the matter.
There are at least seven Americans being held or missing in the Middle East alone. Some were taken during Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state, and some family members, who said the State Department didn’t pay enough attention to their plight, are concerned that her administration will not move aggressively to bring home the hostages. As for the Republican nominee, Donald Trump has no track record of any sort with respect to the issue, so it’s difficult for families to gauge how he would act.
Officials who’ve been implementing new hostage recovery policies may find themselves out of a job in a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump administration. A new president could decide to modify or even abandon the current path, which has relied particularly on the State Department to work with foreign government officials who may have influence over the hostage takers.
Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that these efforts have been making slow but steady progress. And in a sign that the FBI in particular is trying new approaches, the bureau has contacted at least two journalists with contacts in the Middle East and asked them to provide information that might assist in individual hostages’ cases, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter. That’s a major change for the FBI, which has faced criticism from lawmakers and some family members for not acting aggressively enough.
But timing is becoming a more crucial factor in the negotiations than diplomatic connections or innovative techniques.
The period between now and Jan. 20 is “the best chance we have” to free captured Americans, a person familiar with one hostage’s case said.
The Obama administration moved to improve the coordination hostage recovery efforts across the government following the murder of Americans held by ISIS in 2014. As part of the new policies, a Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell was set up at the FBI, which is the lead investigative agency when Americans are kidnapped overseas. And a special presidential hostage envoy for hostage affairs was installed at the State Department.
And while the government has insisted it won’t pay ransom, it stopped threatening to prosecute families who want to pay on their own. Last month, the family of deceased hostage Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker, told ABC News they received 32 emails from ISIS, many seeking ransom. Rather than help them free their daughter, the Muellers said the FBI, which crafted responses to ISIS, only stalled the terror group, or threatened to prosecute them if they paid. ISIS sent a photo to Mueller’s family in February 2015, saying she had been killed in a U.S. airstrike.
Only in the last few months do both the families and U.S. officials feel that the handling of hostage cases has become a cohesive effort and that the government is doing a better job of keeping families informed of the progress on their loved ones’ cases, three individuals close to the matter told The Daily Beast.
That has been a significant development; the new policies, which emphasize keeping families in the loop, were enacted because of pressure by the parents of murdered ISIS prisoners who felt the government kept them in the dark.
The institutional structures that have been put in place may remain past the current administration. The fusion cell and the State Department position in particular were established last year by a presidential policy directive, which has the force of law.
“Through the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, career officials work closely with leaders of agencies and departments from across the U.S. government to ensure we are coordinated, engaged and focused,” a fusion cell spokesperson told The Daily Beast in a statement. “While we are working tirelessly to resolve these cases as soon as possible, the Presidential Executive Order ensures we will sustain our efforts to bring home Americans held captive overseas.”
But a future president could rescind that order or craft a new one that supersedes it. And while neither candidate has indicated he or she would do that, the envoy himself is a political appointee and will presumably be replaced. The head of the fusion cell at the FBI also may move onto a new position.
Of course, change of leadership is a constant feature of every new administration. People come and go and the work of government doesn’t grind to a halt.
“We think that the families are seeing some progress on the coordination front between them and government and are feeling better about that, but at a certain point the question has to be asked: Are we achieving results? And we still haven’t,” Joe Kasper, the chief of staff to Rep. Duncan Hunter, told The Daily Beast. Hunter, who is an adviser to Trump on congressional affairs, has been a leading critic of the Obama administration’s hostage policies.
Before the new hostage efforts were put in place, there were several agencies working on various components of hostage recovery efforts, and often at cross purposes.
For example, the FBI wanted to build criminal cases against the hostage-takers for potential prosecution. The State Department wanted to protect diplomatic relations and was often hesitant to forcefully intervene to recover Americans. And while at times members of the military have been in favor of armed rescue missions, the White House has often been reluctant to put forces in harm’s way.
On some rescue missions, the military has arrived too late to find hostages that intelligence indicated were being held in a particular location. Last year, the U.S. government obtained intelligence on the possible location of American captives held by ISIS in Syria, but Obama administration officials waited nearly a month to launch a rescue mission because of concerns that the intelligence wasn’t conclusive and some of it had come from a foreign service, U.S. and British officials told The Daily Beast.
The families of hostages taken in Syria signaled the heightened sense of urgency in a June letter in which they pleaded for the government to do all it could on behalf of American freelance journalist Austin Tice, who disappeared in Syria in August 2012.
“We are asking the president, fully within the responsibilities and obligations of his office, to put aside any personal or election year concern, to engage boldly and to use all appropriate means to bring Austin Tice safely home as soon as possible,” the families of Steven Sotloff, Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, James Foley, and Kayla Mueller, who all died at ISIS’s hands, wrote in June.
Tice isn’t alone. U.S. citizens Caitlan Coleman and her two young sons are being held by the Haqqani network, an affiliate of the Taliban, along with Josh Boyle, Coleman’s husband and the boys’ father, who is a Canadian citizen.
Another American man is believed to be held by the same group. At the request of family members and U.S. officials, The Daily Beast hasn’t identified him by name. He disappeared in 2014 and at the time was attempting to help broker a peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. In an email to a colleague, the man, who had previously traveled in the Afghanistan region, described himself as “one of the few sincerely interested in the Afghanistan situation with a view toward solving it…”
An American professor recently kidnapped in Afghanistan is also still being held hostage. In Yemen, a former U.S. Marine remains a prisoner. And Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007 while working on a mission for the CIA, has never been accounted for. Some U.S. officials believe that Levinson likely died in Iran. Earlier this year, current and former intelligence officials said they thought the Iranian government doesn’t know where Levinson is.
Some of the hostages have indicated that time is of the essence, as well. In a video released last month by the Haqqani network, Coleman and Boyle implored their governments to come to some agreement with their kidnappers.
“We have been told that the Afghan government has executed some of their prisoners…and that our captors are frightened of the idea of further executions,” Coleman said, referring to the government’s execution of Taliban fighters. “Because of their fear, they are willing to kill us, willing to kill women, and to kill children, to kill whoever in order to get these policies reversed or to take revenge.”