Peter Kassig the Untold Story
*By Stanley Cohen
The life of a “radical” defense attorney in the United States is a seamless journey of never ending, tense, often complex battles with implications that extend well beyond a given case or the courthouse doors. At times, some of these struggles necessarily make for strange bedfellows.
The life and death of Peter Kassig is one such journey.
To activist attorneys, in particular, people’s liberty… on occasion their very lives… comes at us in waves of political uncertainty sculpted by events and decisions over which we have little control.
I had just finished almost two years of non-stop work on behalf of Suliman Abu Ghayth, Usama Bin Laden’s son-in law. Having been released from prison in Iran, Abu Ghayth was kidnapped by the US from Jordan after tasting short-lived freedom for the first time in eleven years. Shackled, ear muffed and hooded, he was immediately renditioned to NYC to stand trial, more than a decade later, not far from the footprint of 9-11.
Seated, surrounded by a pile of files, in my time worn leather chair and dozing off as I prepped for my next trial… a case of an 87 year old who, having consumed a few beers too many, had run over and killed a jogger on a deserted mountain road… I was suddenly jarred awake by my phone.
“Hello, is this Mr. Cohen? My name is Mohammad. We’ve never met, but I’m a fan of yours. I’m Palestinian, and a friend of an American, Peter Kassig, who has been taken by ISIS… to cut his head off. Can you help? He is a very good man… and you know many important people here.”
Though exhausted, and busy, I’ve never been able to say no, at least without listening to the troubles of one who’s reached out to me. So, Mohammad and I chatted for about 20 minutes as he told me the Kassig story, an aid worker kidnapped by ISIS while helping those in need in Syria. Before we parted, I promised to look into it and asked him to call me back in a week.
Hanging up, I browsed an online story of Mr. Kassig who had converted to Islam and was now known as Abdul-Rahman. Set to begin a trial in a few days, and with a flight to catch, I made a mental note to follow-up with our discussion when I returned.
A week later, not long after my arrival back in NYC, my phone rang to the voice of an old friend, a photo journalist who had served in the military, many years before, during the Vietnam era. Irate over the lack of support for Kassig, a veteran himself, he asked whether I might be able to do anything to help.
With two calls from people and worlds and scant weeks apart, I asked an associate to research Abdul-Rahman’s background and circumstances.
“The first thing I want to say is thank you. Both to you and mom for everything you have both done for me as parents, for everything you have taught me, shown me, and experienced with me. I cannot imagine the strength and commitment it has taken to raise a son like me but your love and patience and things I am so deeply grateful for.
I am obviously pretty scared to die…
I wish this paper would go on forever and never run out and I could just keep talking to you. Just know I’m with you. Every stream, every lake, every field and river. In the woods and in the hills, in all the places you showed me. I love you.”
Kassig aka Abdul-Rahman’s words… part of a longer message smuggled out to his parents from his ISIS captors… moved me very much the way visits to Gaza or refugee camps or still smoldering ruins of civilian dwellings turned to steaming rubble have moved me for years. As tears welled up in my eyes, I knew I had to try.
“Salaam-Alaikum X. It’s Stanley. “kaif halak”? With these words, a desperate race against time to save the life of Peter Kassig began.
“X” is the code name I gave my friend who I met, along with a dozen or so other ex long-term Gitmo detainees, during my frequent trips to the Middle East and Gulf while preparing the defense of Abu Ghayth.
Although I had spent years in the courts and the streets representing various national liberation movements such as Hamas, up to this point I had scant hands–on experience with Al-Qaeda and none with ISIS. With the defense of Abu Ghayth, that was to change.
Over the course of a year, I met with these men fairly often. All had been tortured by the US, and its allies, beginning in Kandahar and Bagram… eventually ending up in Gitmo. All but one had been captured and sold by Pakistanis to US forces… usually for a bounty of five-thousand dollars each.
They were the lucky ones. Thousands of other Arabs were simply executed by the US or Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.
All of these men knew Abu Ghayth, not as a member of Al-Qaeda but from his days in the Gulf as an Imam and school principle or during the short period of time he was in Kandahar in the days leading up to 9-11.
X and I hit it off almost immediately… me with my broken Arabic and him with his Gitmo assimilated English filled with slang. Of all the men I got to know, he alone had been “involved” with Al-Qaeda. The rest were teachers, tourists or laborers… in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One man, in particular, speaks volumes of how so many Arabs ended up in Gitmo uncharged and untried. Anas (not his real name) spent years imprisoned there solely because of his Rolex watch. Yes, a watch.
According to declassified Department of Defense reports, when seized, he became a presumptive subject of “interest” because of a Rolex watch on his wrist… “The preferred IED timer of choice for Al-Qaeda.” Years before, he had received the watch to commemorate his membership in an Olympic sports team. Ultimately, this gift came to steal 7 years of freedom from Anas and his family.
His crime? He was in Afghanistan helping to set up a youth sports league at the time of 9-11.
Not long before my call to X, I heard from a mutual friend that he and some Islamic scholars had quietly played the lead in the successful negotiated release of 45 UN peacekeepers held hostage, by Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s arm in the Levant), for two weeks in Syria. If anything could be done to save Peter, this I thought was the way to go.
With help from a translator, X and I briefly revisited old friends and places. Soon, the discussion turned to Peter Kassig with me asking if there was anything that could be done to save him. When he asked why, I simply recounted the letter to his parents and the two phone calls I had received. For me, that was enough. Mere coincidence had suddenly become reality. He understood and said he would get back to me later on.
Early the next day, X called and said reliable contacts had spoken to ISIS directly. He continued on telling me that Abdul Rahman was still alive and that he thought we might be able to win his release.
With the usual signpost of caution I had come to expect from him, X asked how soon I could come to the region for further discussions… noting that my presence there would be viewed by ISIS as a sign of our seriousness. I agreed, but did so only with a guarantee that Abdul Rahman would remain alive while I traveled and during discussions among the parties. Not long thereafter, X called again indicating ISIS had agreed.
Hanging up, I remained frozen, in time and place, for what seemed like an eternity. Though, on occasion, I’d been involved in very sensitive unfolding matters in the Middle East, this was different.
Having no experience with ISIS, and but a relatively short-term connection with X and his contacts, the usual advice and protection that comes from long-term relationships with clients and friends in the Middle East was markedly absent. Here, I was essentially on my own.
In Gaza, years before, I moved quickly to save the life of a US intelligence “asset” who had been unmasked in the early stages of a blackmail scheme directed, by him, at a prominent political leader in the coastal enclave long before the Israeli siege began. It took a series of flights and discussions to have him evicted from the territory… rather than fed to the sea.
Did I intervene because he was an agent, or an American? Of course not. That wasn’t the issue at all. No, politically, his killing would have been bad “business” for Gaza.
Some four years on from this Gaza intervention, I became involved in the negotiated surrender of the beheading tape of Wall Street reporter Daniel Pearle… by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad… when a client of mine, a local Pakistani journalist, received the tape from Al-Qaeda.
Though asked to provide it to US officials, he didn’t know how to proceed, let alone without casting a feared shadow over him for its possession and his contact with Al-Qaeda. Once again, I was able to reach out to sources that I trusted to accomplish the best end without any damage to my client.
If the Kassig effort was to have any chance of success, personal experience had taught me that it could not be undertaken in a vacuum and without the knowledge, if not, at times, assistance from reliable sources within the United States Government.
For me, however, “reliable” and “sources” are not two words that typically merge… let alone resonate when it comes to the United States. I‘ve spent 30 plus years fighting the government in and out of courts and though I’ve developed a begrudging respect, if not trust, for some of my adversaries, as a whole, I’ve seen institutions and persons with very dark lives driven not by principle but by narrow, often, selfish and destructive purpose.
Despite trepidation, I reached out to a federal terrorism prosecutor with whom I had handled a number of cases over the years. Although our battles had often been intense, I found him to be a person of integrity… one who could be trusted. His response? “This is above my pay grade. I’ll have to get back to you.”
Later that day, I heard from him and was told there was a senior FBI supervisor from Washington, on hold, on a separate line with overall responsibility for hostage situations in the Middle East. Not knowing this person, I agreed to speak with him as long as the prosecutor remained on the line.
Over the next few days, calls went back and forth among the prosecutor, FBI supervisor, and me. Though X did not participate, as was my practice, he was well aware of them and their purpose… and the limits that I had set, including my refusal to identify him by name.
For me, these exchanges were an attempt to set up a protocol that could be used if, and when, the need arose for assistance from the government…and nothing else. Although uncertain as to just what that might come to mean, given the fact I was about to leave for the Middle East… for parts and persons unknown (including ISIS)… to do otherwise would have been reckless.
Although the FBI supervisor (to be called Bob) pushed for a procedure that would keep him informed of my efforts… including knowing the identity of who I was meeting with, when and where and the essence of our discussions… I refused. As I did, his suggestion that I maintain face to face contact with government “assets” wherever I might be… for my own “safety.” Talk about an oxymoron.
Boarding the airplane with a private translator, the only agreement that had been reached with Bob was that I was proceeding as a private citizen, could not make any representations on behalf of the government, and would stay in periodic contact with him just to assure that I was safe.
As I settled into my seat and prepared for takeoff, I laughed, to myself, over Bob’s push to know where and when I would be… as if the optics of my cell phone, itself, and a worldwide network of surveillance and informants would fail to leave him with a very well documented trail of my journey.
I’ve traveled abroad dozens of times over the course of my life and work. Unlike many who find departing the United States as a source of great stress, for me it’s always been a welcome respite from the drudgery and defeat that has long been companion to a society that generally views itself as exceptional but, deep down, knows it is lost.
De-boarding the plane, almost a dozen hours later, and anxious to meet X in a country that I visited often without incident, for the very first time, I was detained by security personnel who obviously were expecting me as I was led to their office upon arrival at the visa gate.
Oddly, no questions were asked of me. In what struck everyone there as very much an awkward moment of procedure without purpose, security scurried around until a supervisor arrived to welcome me and provide a visa.
In what was to become ritual throughout the arduous effort to save Abdul-Rahman, on each occasion, when I entered or left a country… whether in the Gulf or Middle East… I was detained by security personnel for varying periods of time. Subtle, Bob… subtle.
There are no places in the world with more hospitality and warmth than the Middle East and Gulf. With so much to do and so little time, on the drive to the hotel I hoped that, for once, this would prove to be the exception. I was wrong.
Two hours later, X arrived… predictably, with food and lots of it… and a half dozen or so friends, of his, to greet us. Though I knew none of the other men, each told me they had followed and respected my work in the region over the years and wanted a chance to say hi and thanks in person.
Over the next several hours, we exchanged lots of anecdotes and laughter with me periodically, nodding to X as I pointed to my own watch. He just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. One by one, the men eventually departed with the last one saying goodnight to us at around 2:00 in the morning… leaving the two of us free, at last, to chat.
“He’s all right”, said X… referring to Abdul Rahman (Kassig)… as we spoke until sunrise designing a plan of how to proceed. That was the good news. The bad news seemed to grow by the hour.
To begin, unlike negotiations which freed UN hostages, ISIS was a completely different beast from Nusra. It was, after-all, not concerned with being seen as receptive to “reason” but rather exploited public displays of senseless brutality as an organizing tool to draw fighters toward its own unique brand of explosive nihilism. Indeed, by this point, it was well into its grotesque bi-monthly beheadings of captive aid workers, journalists and travelers. Although on hold, Abdul Rahman was scheduled to be next.
Nor was ISIS open to “token” gestures, such as hostage releases, without getting something of significant value in return … whether large ransoms of cash and equipment or the release of their own “soldiers.” I came to the table with none of these.
Finally… the most daunting roadblock of all: ISIS leadership was angry with former members and leaders of Al-Qaeda who had frequently vilified it in public for its systematic brutality against civilians, women, and other Muslims. These were the very persons at the heart of our effort to free Abdul-Rahman.
With these hurdles in mind, I bid my friend goodnight to attempt obtaining some much needed relief from jet lag as the Gulf sun overtook the sky. I didn’t. I kept hearing Peter Kassig’s final words to his parents… over and over again.
That evening, X returned for more discussions that, again, lasted long into the early morning hours covering a wide range of potential obstacles.
One problem was strategic tension within the group in which X was working. Though fully committed to obtaining Kassig’s freedom, some members also wanted to initiate a long term protocol with ISIS to end its un-Islamic attacks on civilians. While I agreed with the goal, I opposed the conflation of the two issues as needlessly complicating and likely delaying the very narrow effort to obtain the release of Abdul-Rahman.
This debate was to continue right up to the first formal discussion with ISIS after my arrival… when the idea of the protocol was, at last, abandoned.
Likewise, others didn’t see Kassig being released by ISIS solely as a sign of good faith… even for a civilian aid worker who had converted to Islam before his capture. For them, the nagging question remained, of whether the US might be willing to release ISIS captives or, even, Abu Ghayth as part of a package deal.
When I immediately noted there was no possibility of any such exchange, with classic Gitmo banter X replied, “You can’t blame a guy for trying.” It proved to be one of the few moments of shared laughter that were to punctuate the intensity of our efforts over the coming days.
As our meeting ended, it was agreed X would continue speaking with ISIS, through intermediaries, while I traveled on to speak with others who were interested in meeting with me. Among those I saw over the next week were Gitmo veterans, former Al-Qaeda members, some religious scholars and other activists.
Except for one unexpected meeting, it seemed the discussions had less to do with the process of obtaining freedom for Abdul-Rahman than about some wanting a chance to draw their own conclusions about me and my intentions.
In the surprise meeting which occurred at a local mini-mall, and almost as an afterthought, two men asked lots of detailed probing questions of me. In particular, they were specifically interested in how I became involved with the effort to save Abdul-Rahman, the relationship of the US government to this effort, and what the US might be willing to do in exchange for his release. Only much later, did I learn that these men were members of ISIS.
Though Abdul-Rahman remained alive, on the return flight to the country where the journey had begun, I was not particularly hopeful… as all who I had met with, though supportive, were largely guarded in their beliefs about whether the effort could succeed. Much to my surprise, when X and I met at the airport he congratulated me for a successful journey… noting that, as a result of it, everyone had agreed to proceed with our plan.
More important, I learned that, after a day or so of rest, I was to travel on to Jordan to meet with a well-known religious scholar, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who would take the lead in continuing the discussions with ISIS.
Maqdisi, who I had heard of but not previously met, and who had not long before been released from a Jordanian prison, is a Jordanian-Palestinian scholar who is seen as a spiritual mentor of al-Qaida… and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in particular. Zarqawi went on to found ISIS, in Iraq, after a reported split with his mentor due, at least in part, to Zarqawi’s attacks on civilians.
Not one to miss a chance at intrigue, I was present during a lengthy discussion with a caller… with the echo of a fire-fight blasting out over the car’s speaker phone. I later learned that the caller was in Syria and confirming that Abdul-Rahman was still alive.
As the car pulled up next to a modest three story sandstone building with a stairway facing the street, my heart began to race with uncertainty. This racing grew stronger as I started the climb. The day before, I was present during a news conference, of sorts, at the home of Abu Qatada… a Salafi Jordanian cleric who had, several years before, been extradited from the UK to stand trial in Jordan on terrorism charges for which he was acquitted. Although al-Maqdisi was also present, we spoke only briefly as he welcomed me to Jordan and invited me to come see him the following day at his home.
Knocking on the door, it opened, slowly, to a young girl hiding partially behind it revealing just her glowing face and a mass of curly brown unkempt hair streaming down it. As she smiled, uncertain who we were, al-Maqdisi suddenly arrived to welcome us inside. A humble apartment, with the sound of lots of kids, we were led to a rear room and settled into the library.
We, in the West, are maneuvered by descriptions of dark insular Salafist scholars, locked in century old space, driven by the narrow vision born of rigid minds and experience. It sells.
Sitting in the book lined library of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi quickly put that sale to bed. Maqdisi is a smart man with a wide reach of world events… well beyond those driven solely by any theological construct or limited to the geographical confines of the world where he exercises such significant influence.
Well before our discussion turned to Abdul-Rahman, we spoke at length about a wide range of contemporary world events including the summer’s Israeli aggression on Gaza, increasing police violence in the United States, and tension in Ukraine and Crimea. Throughout our exchange, his daughter sat by her dad coyly stealing periodic glimpses of me as we enjoyed a never ending stream of coffee and, of course, the treasured sweets of Jordan.
Just as suddenly as our discussion began with Palestine, as so much a light switch, it abruptly turned to Abdul Rahman.
Not surprisingly, it was apparent there was no need for me to spend any time briefing him on whom Peter Kassig was or why I had hoped to obtain his release. He also was aware that while the US government knew of my efforts I was not there as its representative.
Describing ISIS as Islam’s worst nightmare, my host made it very clear that he would help in any way he could. He hoped the effort to free Abdul-Rahman would begin to move ISIS away from its brutal assaults upon civilians which he described as nothing short of an all-out assault on Islam, as well.
Al-Maqdisi went on to speak of some of the religious leadership of ISIS as former students of his that had strayed from his teachings. In particular he noted Turki al-Binali who was to become the mufti… or chief religious advisor of ISIS… and whom al-Maqdisi had authorized, years before, to teach his works. At one time, they were more like father and son than teacher and pupil.
He was optimistic that, if given a chance to speak with them, we could succeed… but noted that, under the terms of his recent release from prison, he was prohibited from meeting with, or speaking to, any members of ISIS.
As I left al-Maqdisi’s home, I asked him for the names of those in ISIS he felt he needed to speak with in order to further our efforts. Although he provided three names, today I can recall only that of Turki al-Binali.
“Hey, Bob. How are you?” With these few words, I reached out to the FBI contact that had, before I left the United States, agreed to help with my efforts. Though, as agreed, I had periodically kept in touch with him while traveling… just to let him know I was ok… this was the first time that I asked him for specific help:
“I’ve just met with al-Maqdisi (I had told Bob in advance) who has agreed to assist but cannot reach out to ISIS under the conditions of his release from prison.
These are the three men he wants to speak with but obviously cannot do so unless Jordanian security approves. In addition, I am setting four conditions of my own that must be agreed to, as well, for us to proceed: 1) al-Maqdisi’s discussions cannot, at any time, be used against him for any purpose whatsoever; 2) the calls, if approved, will be unmonitored and made on his own phone… at a time and place of his own choosing; 3) the substance of the calls will not have to be shared or vetted with anyone else… including intelligence officials either in Jordan or the US; and 4) there is no requirement that he provides copies of any exchanges with ISIS, including text and email messages, to anyone.”
Hanging up, Bob indicated that my requests were not “his call” but that they would be passed along to those with the authority within the Unites States and in Jordan for approval, if possible.
Over the next day or two, al-Maqdisi and I stayed in touch… as did X, who spent his time continuing to deal with ISIS who, by now, was well aware that I was in the region. Abdul-Rahman was still alive and, to the surprise of US officials, the bimonthly beheadings had stopped with the last occurring before I traveled abroad.
Awakened by an early morning call, it was Bob who tersely indicated, “it was a go”… with all the required terms and conditions agreed to. Before hanging up, I asked that he email the stream of our discussions, and the approval, for me to share with al-Maqdisi. He agreed.
A few minutes later, I received the email and observed that there was a redacted name and local address on the exchange which indicated that the approval on the Jordanian end had been conveyed to Bob through a local US based “asset.”
Later that morning, just after his required weekly report to Jordanian security… a condition of his release from prison… al-Maqdisi met with me, and my translator, at our hotel.
Even before I had a chance to share, with him, the email I had received, he told me that he had learned, earlier that morning, that the proposed plan to communicate with ISIS had been approved as outlined by me, with the added caveat that his discussions with the three persons could not involve anything other than the effort to obtain Kassig’s release. He agreed.
Anxious to proceed, al-Maqdisi wanted to immediately make his initial outreach to Turki al-Binali. In abundance of caution, and for added security, I suggested that it be delayed until we purchased a new cell phone, and obtained a new number, from which to place the call.
What unfolded that day, as we set off to buy the phone, quickly became truly a comedy of errors. Not far from the hotel, al-Maqdisi, a humble man, was forced to exit his ten year old car which had suddenly come to a halt and could not be restarted.
Opening the hood, there stood one of the world’s most influential Islamic scholars, about to talk with ISIS, standing in the middle of the narrow street pulling and cleaning wires from his car while the traffic jam of beeping vehicles grew behind us. Some five minutes later, we drove off… however, the scene was to repeat itself twice more… turning what should have been a 30 minute drive, to an old Suq, into a three hour odyssey.
Arriving at the phone store not long before it was to close, al-Maqdisi and I proceeded to “argue” over which phone to buy, with him leaning towards the cheapest possible one… that required an app to be purchased elsewhere… and me insisting on a high-tech one that came with the necessary app already built in. I lost. We bought the cheap phone but lost a day as the necessary app could not be installed in this particular model phone. The next morning, we set off, once again. This time, in a borrowed car, to a high tech phone shop where we got the right phone.
Not long thereafter, al-Maqdisi called his former pupil and left a message. As we sat in a coffee shop directly across the street from the ruins of an old Roman amphitheater, busy with the bustle of tourists posing for pictures, I suddenly began to travel without leaving our cramped table.
With al-Maqdisi and my translator speaking about favorite dishes and exchanging family anecdotes I was suddenly struck by the oddity, almost strangeness, of the moment. It was not the first time. It’s happened before, over my many years in the region, where, inexplicably, I found myself trying to reconstruct how I had come to be in this place and time. It was not a long journey… as, suddenly, I was jarred back to the discussion by a ring on al-Maqdisi’s phone. It was Turki al-Binali returning the call.
Faces speak volumes… often more so than words themselves. As I sat watching al-Maqdisi and his former student talk, it was obvious the exchange, though awkward at times, was nevertheless one built of warmth and a rich past.
I could have asked the translator what was being discussed but, instead, the two of us got up and went across the street to take a seat on the aged stone benches of the amphitheater, grab some sun, and reflect on history. Half an hour later, al-Maqdisi joined us with thanks for a chance to speak in private with his onetime apprentice.
Over the next few days, the two of them apparently spoke often… at times, voice to voice… at others, by text or email. On several occasions, I was present during an exchange and, after they ended, had a chance to review the email or text.
Though I never saw the name of Abdul Rahman metioned between them, more than once, Turki al-Binali noted he knew what al-Maqdisi wanted and, while not easy, would likely be achieved.
Understandably, most of their communications were directed at trying to rebuild personal bonds that had been broken through the passage of time and, according to al-Binali, because of al-Maqdisi’s public, and ceaseless, attacks on ISIS.
At one point, Turki al-Binali texted that it pained him beyond words to see his teacher, who he loved, attack him for what he had, in fact, learned from him. Al-Maqdisi simply replied that he had obviously missed the lesson and moved on.
Over the week, I came to see less and less of al-Maqdisi. Though we still spoke by phone, he seemed removed, distant, unable or willing to keep appointments… although he was still upbeat about his efforts. Of interest, his detachment seemed to parallel a series of calls that I received, from X, about the need for me to return to meet with him, and some others, for a face to face update on my efforts and theirs.
On my final day in Jordan, I met al-Maqdisi, late in the afternoon, just beyond the security barrier of the hotel. He was not the same up-beat man I had spent a lot of time with over the previous days… seemingly, now, edgy, nervous, and stripped of his smile and humor. As we spoke one final time, in person, he promised that late that night he was going to, in a call, bring up the issue of Abdul-Rahman’s release… and was hopeful the release would take place not long thereafter.
When I asked him to join me for one final dinner, he declined… noting that he had been ordered by security forces to come and see them. This was an odd request, he opined, given the fact that he had just seen them several days before.
I have good instincts that, on occasion, provide a pathway into events as yet to unfold. As it turned out, this was to be one such time. As I boarded the airplane, I had a strange feeling something was terribly wrong. It was the first time I had felt this way since the journey had begun.
Eight or nine hours later, I was startled by a pounding on my door. I opened it to find my translator, visibly upset, and rambling on about something he had seen on TV. He brought me to his room where a bulletin flashed across the top of the screen, in Arabic, that Abu Maqdisi had, once again, been arrested by Jordanian security officials for some non-descript terrorism charge.
Racing from the room, I immediately called Bob and, as he was unavailable, left a message. I next reached out to X who, himself, had only just learned what had happened. We agreed to meet at my hotel as soon as possible… a drive of some 30 minutes.
Not long thereafter, Bob returned my call… denying any knowledge about al-Maqdisi’s arrest or why. I believed him. He seemed every bit as shocked as me and said several times that all the news he was getting back from his sources, in Amman, was upbeat. He promised to follow-up on al-Maqdisi and get back to me as soon as possible.
As the sun set, X arrived desperate for answers about what had happened in Jordan, now the day before. Although I had spent a lot of time with him over the last several years, I had not before seen him to be in a state of panic. He was. Indeed, this is a man who had survived years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the US, and its allies, with his determination and dignity intact… one not likely to panic because of unforeseen events.
Yet, this was different. X was at the center of an international effort to free an American aid worker essentially because I, another American, had asked him to do so and because it was the right thing to do. In that effort, he had enlisted the help of a group of friends and activists… including one of the world’s preeminent Islamic scholars who was, once again, back in custody, seemingly, because of our efforts… efforts that had been approved, I had thought, at the highest level of government in the United States and Jordan.
Over the next half hour or so, I revisited, with X, all that had occurred in Amman, with and without al-Maqdisi, and shared not just the content of his discussions with Turki al-Binali, but my email exchanges with Bob that had given us the necessary cover, I thought, upon which we had proceeded.
Though I told him of al-Maqdisi’s recent change in demeanor, I had no explanation for it… nor did he. Quickly, however, it became obvious that X already knew much of what I told him about events in Jordan… including al-Maqdis’s contacts with al-Binali and the fact that we seemed to be moving toward the release of Peter Kassig.
Though X expressed no doubt in my personal integrity, he pointed out what I had already realized… namely that some might view this entire effort as a ruse to bring about the re-arrest of Abu Maqdisi. Rejecting this out of hand, X noted that not all in the region knew me personally, nor my reputation, and might just jump to wild conclusions. He also noted that this very visit, by him, had been opposed by some of his own friends because of events in Jordan.
On that point, for one brief moment, the thought flashed through my mind that, all at once, the government had, perhaps, been able to accomplish not just the re-arrest of al-Maqdisi but compromised me, in a way, and in a region where I had long challenged its policies, and those of its proxy states, with some degree of success.
I didn’t have much time to dwell on this thought, however, as the phone rang. It was Bob. Still looking for how this plan had gone awry, he indicated only that he had learned that the arrest had been initiated solely by Jordanian security … and because al-Maqdisi had violated the terms of his release by contact with ISIS leaders!
Hearing this, I yelled into the phone that these were the precise authorizations that had been approved, in writing ,with the agreement of Jordanian security and that he needed to do whatever must be done to obtain al-Maqdisi’s release… and right away.
I closed by demanding that if he, or the FBI, could not accomplish it then someone had to get a hold of the State Department or the White House to get it done… as our own bad faith had, essentially, now become the threat to Abdul-Rahman’s life.
Not long thereafter, X got up and left… telling me, as he did, that he had heard all he needed to know at this point and was on his way to a meeting with others that had been involved in the effort to win Peter Kassig’s release.
The next morning, X dropped by, unexpectedly, just to say goodbye… as he, and others, had been contacted by domestic security agents and told they were no longer permitted to see me.
As X left, he stopped, and turned to tell me they had heard from al-Maqdisi who was doing well, that he did not believe I had played any role in his arrest, and had asked for my help in trying to gain his release. It was the last time I was to see X.
Return flights, to the United States from the Middle East, are, for me, always the most difficult. Despite the tension and, at times, violence once airborne, I always miss the echo of the call to prayer. Even as a non-believer, it seems to ground me.
Leaving X and al-Maqdisi behind that day, my flight was particularly painful. As the plane lifted, my spirits dropped with each rise in altitude. Weeks had been spent to save the life of Peter Kassig from a fate that was now all but certain to follow.
Betrayal had surely undone a slow, but steady, march to freedom that, for Kassig, could have meant a return to the very streams, lake and fields about which he had written in what was to become his final message of love to his parents.
As the first sound of music came through my earphones, I hoped to find comfort in the sleep that was expected… deep down, I knew there would be none.
Arriving back in my office, exhausted, I called Bob hoping to hear some good news about al-Maqdisi. There was none. Instead, I reached a voice mail. Not long thereafter, I received a call-back from a Deputy Director of the FBI.
Though he thanked me for my efforts, predictably, his message was little more than excuse wrapped in apologia as to what had gone wrong… and why.
Indeed, I was shocked to hear the United States try to sell the specious tale that it didn’t know Jordan had decided to arrest al-Maqdisi… and to, then, claim it could do nothing to undo the damage.
Over the next few days, I heard from Bob several times. Although he assured me efforts were underway to see what could be done, neither of us really believed any good would come from it. I don’t fault Bob. I have no doubt that he was very much an unwitting surrogate to a collective of governments that, on the eve of a possible success, made a conscious decision to sacrifice Abdul-Rahman to the mantle of political expedience.
After-all, non-state actors accomplishing what states themselves could not seemed to be a bad message for a public looking for assurance that leaders could and would ,in fact, lead. This is particularly true where the guys coming to the rescue were former Gitmo detainees and an Islamic scholar vilified for his beliefs.
From nowhere, a few days later, I picked up the phone to hear the familiar voices of my translator and X who wanted to say hi and assure me that all was well with him and his friends.
Though al-Maqdisi was still in custody, he had sent his salam to me… and his thanks for my efforts on his behalf. Much to my surprise, X indicated that they wanted to once again try to obtain the release of Abdul-Rahman who was still very much alive. However, in order to do so, it required that his government lift the ban against them having any direct contact with me.
Over the next few days, Bob and I once again spoke as he tried to resolve this problem. Late one night, he called and suggested that I start to look for flights as it appeared the ban, along with my spirits, would soon be lifted.
Hours later, I received a second call from Bob asking me to check with “my people overseas” as they had heard that Abdul-Rahman had been beheaded. I immediately called X who doubted the veracity of the information, indicating that he would likely have heard about it had it happened. He had not. As he hung up he promised to get back to me shortly.
Not long thereafter, the phone rang. It was X. I will never forget his brief message. “I’m sorry, we waited too long… he’s gone.”
The notion that an FBI supervisor, or even Director, could themselves unilaterally approve breach of an agreement between the Government and a foreign State… and thereby sentence a United States citizen/hostage to certain death… is patently absurd.
Likewise, it is impossible to fathom a subordinate member of the executive branch of Government sitting idly by while another foreign State abrogates an agreement intended to safeguard a US citizen… and in so doing, guaranteed their death.
Yet, that is precisely what occurred here, in a circle dance of death, where the FBI first feigned ignorance about how the agreement with Jordan had been unilaterally breached… and then claimed it was powerless to intervene, with a country that has received billions in dollars of aid, to simply require it to adhere to the very agreement with which they were a knowing party in the first stead.
Here, there should be no doubt that the decision to permit the arrest of al-Maqdisi… and, thereby, blow up an effort to save the life of Peter Kassig, could not have happened without the specific knowledge, and approval, at the very highest reaches of the United States Government.
Though Peter Kassig was beheaded with a scimitar wielded by an ISIS assassin, ultimately, it bore the signature of the United States of America.
Speaking, not long after news of Peter Kassig’s beheading had been verified, then President, Barrack Obama stated “’He was taken from us in an act of pure evil.” On this point Mr. President we can all agree.