Did the U.S. Abandon an American Hostage in Syria? Inside the Secret Bid to Free Peter Kassig

StoryDecember 30, 2014
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Stanley Cohen

longtime human rights attorney who brokered the secret talks for Peter Kassig’s release. Next week, he is due to begin serving an 18-month prison term over tax offenses, a case he says was politically motivated based on his years of taking on controversial cases.

As we explore how the United States fails to win the release of its hostages overseas, we are joined by Stanley Cohen, a lawyer directly involved in secret talks to win the freedom of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig. Cohen argues that the U.S. government missed a chance to prevent Kassig’s beheading last month by the Islamic State in Syria. A controversial attorney whose past clients include Hamas, Hezbollah and the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, Cohen tapped his extensive contacts in a failed effort to win Kassig’s freedom. With the FBI’s blessing, Cohen flew to the Middle East where he spearheaded talks between figures aligned with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. But the plan fell apart when Jordan arrested a leading cleric who played a key role in the talks and the United States refused to intervene. Kassig was killed shortly after. "The United States made a decision — I don’t know if it was the White House, I don’t know if it was the State Department — they made a decision to throw Mr. Kassig under the bus, because, for whatever reason, the Jordanian government did not want this to happen," Cohen says.

NEXT"Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart": NYT Mag Examines Region Since 2003 U.S. Invasion
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

AARON MATÉ: As we continue our look at how the U.S. has failed to win the release of hostages captured by ISIS and other militants, we turn now to the case of Peter Kassig. A former U.S. soldier turned aid worker in Syria, Kassig was captured by ISIS just over a year ago. Last month, he was executed in the latest ISIS beheading of a Western hostage. Kassig, who was 26, converted to Islam in captivity and was also known as Abdul-Rahman. After his death, his parents, Paula and Ed Kassig, remembered their son.

PAULA KASSIG: Our hearts are battered, but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end, and good will prevail as the one god of many names will prevail.

ED KASSIG: Please pray for Abdul-Rahman, or Pete, if that’s how you know him, at sunset this evening. Pray also for all people in Syria, in Iraq and around the world.

AARON MATÉ: Paula and Ed Kassig, the parents of Peter Kassig. Well, just over a month after his death, a New York lawyer has come forward to reveal he brokered secret talks aimed at winning Kassig’s release and that he believes the U.S. government missed a chance to prevent Kassig’s death.

AMY GOODMAN: In a minute, we’ll speak with Stanley Cohen, the attorney whose past clients, oh, include Hamas, Hezbollah, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden. Using his extensive contacts and working with the FBI’s blessing, Cohen flew to the Middle East, where he developed a plan to free Peter Kassig through talks between figures aligned with al-Qaeda and Islamic State. But the plan fell apart when the U.S. ally, Jordan, arrested the leading cleric who played the key role in the talks and the U.S. refused to intervene. Kassig was beheaded shortly after.

This is a report by The Guardian, an excerpt of a report, that details part of Stanley Cohen’s efforts earlier this year.

PHOEBE GREENWOOD: On October 13th, Cohen flew to Kuwait to meet a group of al-Qaeda veterans whom he had codenamed "the Food Group." The only way Kassig would be released, they advised, was in a deal negotiated by Salafist sheikhs, the scholastic heads of the jihadist movement. Cohen also contacted an assistant attorney general and the FBI, seeking support for his mission. Cohen asked the FBI to sanction his approach to Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi in Jordan, al-Qaeda’s spiritual leader. Only someone with Maqdisi’s standing could bend the ear of his ISIS counterpart, ideologue Turki bin Ali.

EMAIL: October 23rd, email, FBI contact to Cohen: "Was just told by my coworker in the country you’re in the call is a go."

PHOEBE GREENWOOD: Maqdisi agreed to help Cohen. The sheikh initiated a dialogue with bin Ali, a negotiation based on three pillars. One, Maqdisi would stop all public criticism of ISIS. Two, ISIS, in return, would abandon its tactic of kidnapping and executing Western journalists and aid workers. And, three, as a gesture of good faith, ISIS would release Peter Kassig.

EMAIL: October 25th: "There is support among both the religious heavyweights and some of the important guys on the ground."

PHOEBE GREENWOOD: Cohen boarded a flight from Jordan to Kuwait bearing good news for his al-Qaeda contacts. The sheikhs were on track to make a deal. But within a few hours of Cohen’s flight leaving Amman, Jordanian security forces arrested Maqdisi on Internet terrorism charges. Cohen claimed to have been blindsided by the arrest, but al-Qaeda’s trust in him evaporated. The talks collapsed, and with his key advocate now in prison, Kassig’s life was back on the line.

EMAIL: October 30th: "Plugs been pulled for now on talks. ... [P]pl more than a bit spoked and feeling betrayed."

PHOEBE GREENWOOD: Cohen returned to New York deflated. Kassig’s execution had been delayed, but he told the FBI hopes for his release had dissolved with Maqdisi’s arrest. Anger at this betrayal burned any inclination among the sheikhs to cooperate. On November 16th, the worst happened.

EMAIL: November 16th: "Oh my God. Just woke up to see your message I have reached out."

PHOEBE GREENWOOD: The video announcing Kassig’s execution was released.

ED KASSIG: A while ago, we were informed that our beloved son, Abdul-Rahman, no longer walks this Earth.

PAULA KASSIG: In 26 years, he has witnessed and experienced firsthand more of the harsh realities of life than most of us can imagine.

AMY GOODMAN: That report by The Guardian. And we’ll link to the Guardian website for the full video report.

Well, Stanley Cohen joins us now in our New York studio, veteran human rights attorney who brokered the secret talks aimed at winning Peter Kassig’s release.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

STANLEY COHEN: Thank you for inviting me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened? Explain how it was that the man that the U.S. was also allowing you to speak with in these negotiations was then arrested by Jordan. And what did the U.S. do about that?

STANLEY COHEN: The truth may not be known for many years, but the reality of it is that we had negotiated a protocol between the Jordanian intelligence and the United States government, a five-point protocol which specifically permitted Sheikh Maqdisi, who is, by some, the most important jihadi—for lack of a better word—imam in the world, to specifically speak with one of his students, Turki bin Ali, who is the grand mufti of ISIS. That was reduced to writing. We have the exchange of emails between the government and ourselves.

After two or three days of negotiations around the terms and conditions of those discussions, while discussions were going on with Gitmo veterans in Kuwait with other people at the same time, I received an email that said, from the government, "Spoken to co-worker on the ground. The talks are a go." The talks began. I saw on WhatsApps the exchanges of information, the discussions, while I was in Jordan, between bin Ali and Maqdisi. It was clearly moving in the right direction. It didn’t involve the exchange of money or anything else. This was going to be a personal request by the Maqdisi in exchange for stopping his verbal attacks upon ISIS.

From nowhere, after the Jordanians had approved of this negotiation, he was arrested. He was seized, the conditions being, although they changed—they said there were a variety of reasons for the arrest—it came down to the fact that he was talking to ISIS, and he wasn’t allowed to, despite the fact that we had a protocol agreed to by the U.S. government and the Jordanian government.

At the same time, when I returned to Kuwait, Kuwaiti intelligence people moved in on ex-Gitmo people that were involved, and threatened to arrest them if they continued negotiations or discussions with ISIS around two points. It wasn’t just around the release of Peter Kassig; it was also around stopping the seizing of civilians, stopping the seizing of journalists, the beheading and capture of journalists and aid workers as a new process in the region.

AARON MATÉ: When you say there was a protocol agreed to by the U.S. and Jordan, you had confirmation from the U.S. that they authorized the channel with this figure that you were dealing with?

STANLEY COHEN: We provided a hundred pages of email exchanges between myself and a person who’s a lead person with the FBI, which laid out the protocol, the five steps that were required in order for Maqdisi to do it, which after two days said, "The calls are a go. You can do it." Maqdisi began the calls. The calls were positive. It happened at the same time—keep in mind, there had been no beheadings for six weeks. When I was told to come to the Middle East, we were told—we conveyed I wasn’t coming unless there was a guarantee that Mr. Kassig would be alive and at that point the beheadings would stop. For some six weeks, no one was beheaded. This was a protocol. It was negotiated. It was reduced to writing. It was shared with Sheikh Maqdisi. It was shared with Sheikh Qatada, another former al-Qaeda heavyweight, so to speak. And the talks were underway.

AARON MATÉ: So talk about these talks, how they went, when you were shuttling between Jordan and Kuwait.

STANLEY COHEN: Well, there were two different angles or approaches. One had to do with ex-Gitmo. Imagine you’re an ex-Gitmo veteran. When I say "veteran," you were a prisoner. People who had been tortured in Bagram, in Kandahar, in Gitmo, they made a decision. These were folks that I had worked with over the prior few years in some cases of mine. They made a decision it was in the best interest, for a whole lot of reasons, for these beheadings to stop.

I was told to come to the Middle East. The people in Kuwait were negotiating with fighters, essentially, from ISIS, while I was told I had to go to Jordan to speak with Maqdisi and with Qatada, because if they were going to release anyone, ISIS, it would only come through discussions with Sheikh Maqdisi. I went. We met. There was a protocol set up. There were telephones that were purchased. There were communications that were underway. The government was aware of what was proceeding at all times. They made a request for the identity of the three people that Maqdisi was speaking with. He agreed to provide them. He provided them. The FBI had them. The discussions were underway.

Not only were there no beheadings for six weeks at all, but al-Qaeda for the first time made public pronouncements calling for the saving of Mr. Kassig and the cessation of beheadings. So, clearly, there was positive movement underway that had nothing to do with money, that had nothing to do with buying freedom, that had—it was all based upon a discussion between religious leaders who were opposed to the beheadings, opposed to the captors, and ISIS, their leadership, their religious leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did Jordan say they arrested him? And what did the U.S. or didn’t the U.S. do?

STANLEY COHEN: Well, initially, Jordan said they arrested Maqdisi because of a post that he had done a month before. I find it interesting—a post in which he called for unification because of the new crusades, meaning the bombings. I found it interesting that Jordan arrested him and told the U.S. it was OK and go for it and you can do it, knowing two days later he was to be arrested.

After his arrest, I reached out to the government immediately, and I was very blunt. I said, "You’ve just basically killed—not you, but we’ve all been sandbagged. Someone needs to get on the phone, whether it’s the White House or the State Department. Pick up a phone, call Jordan, release Maqdisi, get these talks underway, get them moving once again." I had had discussions again with people in Kuwait who took the same position. The discussions could proceed. We just needed to get Maqdisi back out.

Maqdisi wasn’t charged with acts of terrorism. He wasn’t charged with any acts of conspiracy. Eventually, we found out he was essentially arrested because of the very communications and contacts that had been authorized by the United States and agreed to by Jordanian intelligence.

AARON MATÉ: Can you talk about the geopolitical implications of these talks that you’re brokering here? I mean, here you have figures aligned with al-Qaeda reaching out to figures aligned with ISIS, who have been at odds. That speaks to a potential restoring of ties between the two.

STANLEY COHEN: Listen, the record of Sheikh Maqdisi and Qatada was very clear. They had absolutely no use for ISIS whatsoever. They found their tactics to be repugnant to Islam. This was not about a rapprochement. The United States has tried to argue that one of the problems is it would have been a rapprochement. Rapprochement was never on the table. There was a very public debate, a, at times, very aggressive and offensive debate between ISIS and these other sheikhs. The agreement was that in exchange for the release of Mr. Kassig, for this new bridge which was going to stop attacking journalists, stop attacking aid workers and civilians, they were going to tone down the debate. There was never a chance of any rapprochement, of the true groups merging, of creating a new sort of tsunami of terrorism. It just wasn’t going to happen. As Sheikh Qatada has described ISIS, they’re a bunch of thugs. They want nothing to do with them. These are the same people that had negotiated the release, without money, of 36 peacekeepers from a different group in the region just six months before. They were interested in a cessation of these types of violent, un-Islamic beheadings and capturings of civilians. This was not about ever a reunification of two groups that were fighting each other.

AMY GOODMAN: So what did the U.S. say to you when you said, "You’ve got to get on the phone to Jordan and have him released"?

STANLEY COHEN: "We can’t get involved." Nonsense. Three weeks later, the president is sitting there with Abdullah in the White House, giving him an extra $400 million a year for 10 years to lead the ISIS battle. The United States made a decision—I don’t know if it was the White House, I don’t know if it was the State Department—they made a decision to throw Mr. Kassig under the bus, because, for whatever reason, the Jordanian government did not want this to happen.

Now, I have my own theory. My theory is simple: that there are surrogate states in the region that were very much concerned about nonstate actors, such as these persons, being able to accomplish what they couldn’t accomplish, which would have caused them tremendous loss of financial aid from the U.S. They didn’t want it to happen. They prevented it from happening. And I’m convinced that had Sheikh Maqdisi not been arrested, Mr. Kassig would have been saved, and this—there would have been a cessation of these practices.

AMY GOODMAN: And where is Sheikh Maqdisi today?

STANLEY COHEN: He’s still in prison. He’s in Jordan being—every 15 days, he sees an intelligence judge, who just renews it, renews it, renews it.

AARON MATÉ: What about the motive of the U.S.?

STANLEY COHEN: Well, there are some who believe that the U.S. didn’t want it to happen, that they were afraid of this rapprochement, that they wanted the best of all worlds. They wanted to be able to say, "We’re trying an innovative approach to obtain the release." They were shocked at the speed by which we really moved. This occurred within a 17-day period. We’re not talking about a year and a half. And eventually the United States made a decision—someone in the U.S. made a decision: "We’re not going to change our geopolitical policies. We’re not going to tell Jordan what to do." And Mr. Kassig died.

AMY GOODMAN: Stanley Cohen, you are facing 18 months in prison right now.

STANLEY COHEN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Next week you go to jail for tax evasion.

STANLEY COHEN: Not tax invasion, impeding the IRS code.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel there’s any connection between what you’re going to be serving time for and the kind of work you’ve been doing over these years?

STANLEY COHEN: No, anyone who knows me knows I’ve been harassed for 15 years. The investigation into my work for Hamas started more than 15 years ago, with clients harassed, with people being told if they gave me up, they’d get out of jail. There’s been a steady practice, raids on my office. There has been monitoring that’s going on. There’s been harassment of my family. It’s caused tremendous time and effort in terms of my practice.

I find it interesting, the disconnect between me, who supposedly is this person who put his own interests ahead of the U.S. government, but when it came to my going to the region, when it came to the U.S. government making decisions on the basis of my recommendation, there was no problem whatsoever. I was assigned to a federal judge that I’d been fighting with for 20 years. There were prosecutors who were assigned to this case who were recently called liars by federal judges. Anyone who knows me knows the concept of me, who’s done so much pro bono work, especially in the Middle East, being engaged in obstruction of tax, knows it’s rubbish.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Stanley Cohen, veteran human rights attorney, brokered the secret talks for Peter Kassig’s release. Ultimately, those talks failed, and Peter Kassig was beheaded. Stanley Cohen begins serving an 18-month prison term over tax offenses, a case he says is politically motivated based on his years of taking on controversial cases. We’ll do a post-show with him. We’ll post it online at

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"Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart": NYT Mag Examines Region Since 2003 U.S. Invasion

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