By Lee Ferran and Meghan Keneally
ABC News' Rhonda Schwartz, James Gordon Meek, Rym Momtaz, Matthew Mosk and Alexander Tucciarone contributed to this project.
It’s an international business based on misery and terror, desperation and violence -- and its profits line the pockets of men who make suicide vests. A high-level U.S. Treasury official recently said that kidnapping-for-ransom is the number two source of funding
for terrorist organizations, falling only behind direct state sponsorship.
It’s hardly a new terrorist tactic, but with the brutal murder of an American journalist
and the sudden release of an American writer
by terrorist groups that held them hostage, new questions have arisen about making deals with organizations bent on death and destruction.
No money reportedly changed hands in the recent cases that made headlines. The governments of the U.S. and the U.K. say they refuse to pay ransom for their citizens, but other governments
, private companies and individuals have turned over millions to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS
, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Security officials told ABC News that prior to the execution of journalist James Foley
, several other European hostages had been released by ISIS – but only after the terror group received a reported $2 million to $3 million for each. According to public remarks by U.S. Treasury officials, at least $165 million in ransom has been funneled to terrorist organizations since 2008.
In the course of covering the latest crises, ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross and the Investigative Team interviewed key people at each stage of hostage negotiations about their personal experience from inside the life or death ordeals.
Disappearance -- and First Contact
Every hostage situation is different, but many start the same way -- with sudden silence. When Foley was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012, neither his family nor his employer, GlobalPost, heard a word for weeks from the reporter or his captors.
At the urging of the government, Foley’s family decided to keep quiet until January 2013, when they stepped in front of news cameras
to plead publicly for their son’s release. The U.S. government embarked on an international effort
to find Foley, but still there was no news until November 2013 – one year after Foley was kidnapped – when one email changed everything. GlobalPost CEO Phil Balboni told ABC News about the gut-wrenching process that followed:
Life in Captivity
Nicolas Henin was a French journalist who was held captive alongside Foley
in a jihadi prison in Syria. He said that they were kept in "pretty much improvised cells, most of the time underground" and their treatment depended largely on specific guards.
"Some of the captors were relatively kind with us, some others were sometimes violent," he told ABC News. "We received from time to time some kicks or punches. But also for several months in a row we were not touched at all."
Henin spoke about life in detention and the lasting hope for freedom:
The Men and Women Who Talk to Terrorists
Although the U.S. government refuses to pay ransoms
for American citizens, it doesn’t mean that hope is lost for those held captive. Professional hostage negotiators like former FBI agent Jack Cloonan try to coordinate between the captors, diplomats working backchannels and corporate heads who are willing to pay if their employees are captured. Cloonan said that he has been involved in 154 such deals all over the world -- deals that are controversial because, while they are clearly intended to help free the captives, they can also end up funding the terror regimes:
“What is a life worth? I understand what the United States government position is. I know as a private citizen I would want to work very hard to get someone that I worked with or somebody that I knew or somebody that I loved out of that position and I would try my hardest to do everything,” Cloonan told ABC News. “I sleep very comfortably at night knowing what we do for a living. I have no problems with it at all.”
Seldom a Straight Line
Even with professional help, it’s not always clear exactly who is in charge of the prisoners and how to get in touch with them. When Foley was taken in Syria, no one knew who had him. That led U.S. officials to reach out to unlikely messengers
– Turk, Russian and Czech officials – to try to get word to possible kidnappers on either side of the Syrian conflict.
Days after the video of Foley's death emerged online, another jihadist group in Syria, al-Nusra Front, suddenly released an American writer
it had held captive. With Peter Theo Curtis' freedom came public revelations that the Gulf state of Qatar had played a key role
in the negotiations.
ABC News Foreign Editor Jon Williams worked abroad for the BBC when his colleague, Alan Johnston, was taken hostage
by Palestinian militants in Gaza in 2007. As the company negotiated for Johnston’s release, Williams said they found out the person with whom they were dealing was located hundreds of miles away:
Closing The Deal, Cautiously
If the two sides do end up agreeing to a price, the negotiators still have to proceed with extreme caution. As Cloonan told ABC News, terror groups generally “don’t take credit cards.”
“That is very, very difficult and [it’s] a complicated set of circumstances,” Cloonan said. “You are talking about moving money internationally. You’re talking about dealing with laws and regulations. You have to be very careful about what you’re doing… At some point you have to change money for a victim.”
Cloonan said the transfer of money and the exchange of the hostage is sometimes done separately – and often through an intermediary. It requires those making the payments to have faith in the middlemen, not to mention the hostage-takers. The intermediaries may also want to be paid for their services, or could steal some along the way, Cloonan said.
“You can see how complicated this can be. Someone makes the wrong move, they control the situation and you could lose a victim,” Cloonan said. “If somebody gets hot-headed… and decides to shoot somebody, you have a victim hung in the balance.
“So again, you’re taking a huge chance. You have to go about this very quietly. You have to do it very diligently, and you have to have a lot of patience. Because everything that could possibly go wrong when you’re transferring money for a human being can go wrong.”
After the Deal Is Done
Not all hostage negotiations work out. Many civilians currently remain in captivity abroad, some in the hands of ISIS. Worse, sometimes the terror groups aren't looking to negotiate in the first place. In the case of James Foley, officials told ABC News that ISIS made demands so absurd -- $132 million and the release of high-profile prisoners in U.S. custody -- that they must have known they weren't going to be taken seriously
. As Cloonan said, it was revenge -- not money – that ISIS seemed to be after.
But other times, the captive lives to see freedom again. American Peter Theo Curtis was apparently released for no money, according to U.S. officials and Curtis’ family. The surprising release may have been a public relations move on the part of al-Nusra to distance itself from the brutal tactics of ISIS. But in an interview with "GMA" Anchor Amy Robach
, it seemed that to Curtis’ mother, Nancy, all that analysis is just background noise:
Still, former hostage Nicolas Henin said that when he was freed from ISIS's prison, there were mixed feelings.
"We were extremely happy for ourselves because that was the moment we had been waiting for since the first day of our captivity," he said. "But meanwhile, we were still disturbed because we were leaving friends behind... I was naive enough to tell [James Foley], 'See you.'"
At least three other Americans are thought to be held by ISIS. A representative for one of the hostages' families said the terror group has already named its price for the freedom of one: $6.6 million