Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Didier Francois did not provide information that American journalist James Foley was being targeted for more abuse. The information was provided by another hostage held with Foley.
At least four hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State, including an American journalist who was recently executed by the group, were waterboarded in the early part of their captivity, according to people familiar with the treatment of the kidnapped Westerners.
James Foley was among the four who were waterboarded several times by Islamic State militants who appeared to model the technique on the CIA’s use of waterboarding to interrogate suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Waterboarding often involves strapping a person down on a gurney or bench and pouring cold water over a cloth covering the face. It causes the sensation of drowning. “The wet cloth creates a barrier through which it is difficult — or in some cases not possible — to breathe,” according to a Justice Department memo in May 2005 about the CIA’s use of the technique.
President Obama has condemned waterboarding as torture.
“They knew exactly how it was done,” a person with direct knowledge of what happened to the hostages said of the Islamic State militants. The person, who discussed the hostages’ experience on the condition of anonymity, said the captives were held in Raqqah, a city in north-central Syria.
The Islamic State beheaded Foley last week in apparent retaliation for U.S. airstrikes on Iraq, where the militant group has seized large swaths of territory. The group, which also controls parts of Syria, has threatened to kill another American, journalist Steven J. Sotloff. He was seen at the end of a video the Islamic State released that showed Foley’s killing. Two other Americans are being held by the group.
A second person familiar with Foley’s time in captivity confirmed that he was tortured, including by waterboarding.
“Yes, that is part of the information that bubbled up, and Jim was subject to it,” the person said. “I believe he suffered a lot of physical abuse.”
Foley’s mother, Diane, said Thursday that she had not been informed previously that her son had been waterboarded.
The FBI, which is investigating Foley’s death and the abduction of Americans in Syria, declined to comment. The CIA had no official comment.
“ISIL is a group that routinely crucifies and beheads people,” said a U.S. official, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State. “To suggest that there is any correlation between ISIL’s brutality and past U.S. actions is ridiculous and feeds into their twisted propaganda.”
Waterboarding was one of the interrogation techniques adopted by the CIA and sanctioned by the Justice Department when the agency opened a series of secret overseas prisons to question terrorism suspects.
Three CIA detainees — Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaida and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — were waterboarded while held in secret CIA prisons. Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times, according to a memo issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
The three men, along with 11 other so-called high-value detainees, were transferred to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in September 2006, when President George W. Bush closed the CIA’s overseas prisons.
Upon entering office, Obama outlawed the use of coercive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.
Critics of waterboarding have said for years that the practice endangered Americans, putting them at risk of being subjected to the same brutal treatment at the hands of the enemy.
“Waterboarding dates to the Spanish Inquisition and has been a favorite of dictators through the ages, including Pol Pot and the regime in Burma,” Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) said in an op-ed in 2008. “Condoning torture opens the door for our enemies to do the same to captured American troops in the future.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to release a report asserting that waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques used by CIA operatives were not effective, said Feinstein, who chairs the panel. Former agency employees dispute that conclusion.
One hostage who was imprisoned with Foley has told reporters that Foley was targeted for extra abuse because his captors found pictures on his computer of his brother, who serves in the U.S. Air Force.
François said Foley was subjected to mock executions — something suspected al-Qaeda operative Nashiri also endured while being held in a secret CIA prison, according to a report by the inspector general of the CIA. The Justice Department did not sanction mock executions.
François was kidnapped by the Islamic State in June 2013 and held for 10 months. He and three other French journalists were released near the Turkish border.
U.S. and British intelligence officials said they’re close to identifying Foley’s killer among a group of British men who traveled to Syria to fight and appear to have held him, François and the others hostage.
On Wednesday, Sotloff’s mother released a video in which she made an emotional plea for the leader of the Islamic State to free her son.
“Please release my child,” Shirley Sotloff said. “And as a mother, I ask your justice to be merciful and not punish my son for matters he has no control over.”
On Thursday, Islamic State militants released another video of the purported beheading of one of their prisoners — this time an Iraqi Kurdish fighter who was killed for his government’s alliance with the United States.