The Cost of the U.S. Ban on Paying for Hostages

The Cost of the U.S. Ban on Paying for Hostages

For a fleeting moment last year, Louai Abo Aljoud, a Syrian journalist, made eye contact with the American hostages being held by the Islamic State militant group.

One of dozens of prisoners inside a former potato chip factory in northern Syria, Mr. Abo Aljoud was taken out of his cell one day and assigned to deliver meals to fellow inmates. It was when he opened the slot to Cell No. 2 that he first saw them — the gaunt, frightened faces of James Foley, Steven J. Sotloff and Peter Kassig.

Mr. Abo Aljoud, a 23-year-old freelance cameraman, said he resolved not only to save himself, but also to help the other inmates if he could. He memorized the prison’s floor plan and studied its location in Aleppo. When he became one of the lucky few to be released this May, he pressed to meet with American officials in neighboring Turkey.

“I thought that I had truly important information that could be used to save these people,” he said. “But I was deeply disappointed.”

A State Department employee and a contractor were eventually sent to meet him at a restaurant, but both were assigned to deal with civil society in Syria, not hostages. Mr. Abo Aljoud grew frustrated, insisting he could pinpoint the location of the prison on a map. Instead, he said, he received only vague assurances that the employees would pass on the details he had shared and his contact information to the relevant investigators.

“It’s my impression that they were more interested in gathering intelligence, in general, than in saving these people,” he said. “I could have shown them the location on Google Maps, but they weren’t interested.” Although the hostages had been moved by the time he met with the American officials this spring, the militants have been known to recycle prison locations.

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