Inside the White House, it is known as “the tragic summer of 2014.” Islamic State forces were rampaging across Iraq and Syria, erasing borders and massacring opponents and minority groups.
President Obama and his national security team knew they had to stop the advance, and they knew that any military action would put at risk the lives of at least four Americans being held by the group in Syria. One after another the American hostages — James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig — were murdered. The fourth, Kayla Mueller, was killed in 2015.
In the tense months before and after their deaths, Lisa Monaco, the senior counterterrorism adviser to the president, was meeting with the grief-stricken families.
“They told me about their frustration and their disappointment; their confusion about how the government was handling finding and recovering their loved ones,” Monaco said.
For Monaco, those meetings became the basis for a White House-directed effort to change the way the United States works to bring home American hostages and, just as importantly, how they work with families.
Today, family members of those taken captive and their advocates point to improvements. “There’s greater coordination within the government and a greater willingness to share information,” said Rachel Briggs, executive director of Hostage US, a nonprofit group that provides support to families and released hostages. “Is it much improved today from what it was? Absolutely. Is there a further distance to travel? Yes.”
The challenge for the White House is ensuring that hard-won lessons, many of which came at the expense of American hostages and their families, are passed along to the Trump administration, and that the government continues to make progress at the dauntingly complex task of hostage recovery.
Gauging improvements to a hostage recovery process that is, by necessity, cloaked in secrecy can be difficult. To oversee recovery efforts and communicate with families, the Obama administration created a single fusion cell that includes representatives of the FBI, the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence community.
“We were making hard and sincere efforts to find and bring back our people,” Monaco said. But there was often “little coordination among government agencies” and no unified strategy, she added. Hostage recovery was rarely the top priority for military or intelligence officials managing wars or seeking to stop the next terrorist attack.
Since the fusion cell was set up in 2015, it has overseen almost 100 recoveries, about 25 percent of which came from terrorist groups, according to U.S. officials. Officials refused to break down the numbers, but the overall figure includes people who were kidnapped by criminal gangs in different parts of the world.
But hostages from the United States are still less likely to make it home safely than hostages from other countries, said Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert at the New American Foundation. “We’ve got a lot of data and are crunching the numbers,” he said. “Outcomes for Americans are significantly worse than any other group.”
Some of the difference could be due to the U.S. government’s refusal to pay for the release of Americans, on the theory that it only encourages more hostage-taking. Americans may also be more attractive targets because of the United States’ superpower status.
The toughest cases involve hostages taken by stateless jihadist groups. Last week, a Taliban ally that kidnapped Caitlin Coleman, 31, and her husband, Joshua Boyle, 33, in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region released a video showing the couple and their two toddler children.
“We have waited since 2012 for somebody to understand our problems,” Coleman said, while her Canadian husband and the children, who were born in captivity, sat nearby. The group is believed to have grabbed Coleman and Boyle while they were backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said the changes the White House instituted in 2015, including the fusion cell, still have not produced a coherent strategy to bring home Americans. “What are the deliverables?” he asked. “What have you delivered that you couldn’t deliver before?”
As soon as the U.S. government gets information that an American has been taken hostage, a team from the fusion center calls the family and dispatches intelligence analysts and regional experts to meet with them. They start by creating a communication plan. “How do you want to be notified? Do you want a call every single day?” said Jeff Dubel, the acting director of the fusion center.
The team will then work to declassify intelligence about the recovery effort.
The White House’s changes also gave families greater latitude to pay ransom to terrorist groups or work with allied governments without fearing prosecution at home.
But the policy change means little to most families, who “don’t have the wherewithal to rescue their children on their own,” Perry said. “The government is really their only advocate. They’re told not to do anything outside of channels. But nothing inside the channels seems to work.”
Even among the families there is broad disagreement over how best to ensure that American hostages make it home.
Some representatives insist that more aggressive U.S. military rescue efforts are the solution. “What is needed is a concerted government policy that makes it prohibitively costly for groups to hold American hostages,” said Barak Barfi, a principal adviser to the Sotloff family during their son Steven’s incarceration by the Islamic State.
Other families, including the relatives of Luke Somers, who was killed during a rescue attempt in Yemen, disagree. Somers’s death followed an early failed attempt by the U.S. military to free him.
“Luke’s life wasn’t in imminent danger until after the first raid,” said Jordan Somers, Luke’s brother. He believes a more patient approach would have produced a better result. “We would have paid whatever we could to bring my brother home,” he said.
Two years after his brother’s death, Jordan and his mother are still trying to understand Luke’s life as a hostage. The hostage fusion cell recently gave them a case report that included a declassified timeline of Luke’s time in captivity. But big questions remain. Throughout much of Somers’s 15 months as a hostage, the government told his family that he was being held by Yemeni tribesman. Only near the end did they learn that he had been transferred to a Yemeni offshoot of al-Qaeda.
“If we had known, it might have changed our strategy,” Jordan said. “The situation was much more dire than we were led to believe.”
He still gets regular calls from the fusion cell, and he recently he spoke with Monaco, hoping she could help him and his mother get more money for mental-health care. They had already used up an initial $5,000 government grant, provided to them through congressional legislation. Monaco told him that she was unable to help.
“The unfairness of the whole situation in its entirety is just outlandish and upsetting,” Jordan said. “I take it too personally . . . in a way we still feel forgotten.”
Monaco said she understands the frustration.
“Nothing we can do here will substitute for that loss,” she said from her basement office in the West Wing. “Nothing is 100 percent satisfactory, and nothing is going to be enough until these families see their loved ones come home. That is just true.”