On the evening of 3 October, the New York attorney Stanley Cohen got a phone call about Peter Kassig, the young American aid worker held hostage by Islamic State (Isis). The callers were Palestinians from the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon who knew Kassig, and they were “very upset”, Cohen recalled. They had just seen the footage of Alan Henning, a British hostage, being beheaded. At the end of the video, when the masked terrorist who has been dubbed “Jihadi John” paraded another hostage before the camera, they recognised their friend Peter.
Kassig had done relief and medical work in Sabra and Shatila, and even helped raise money for the refugees, before he was kidnapped in October 2013. “He’s a good guy,” the callers told Cohen. Given the pace of previous Isis executions – roughly once a fortnight since August – they feared Kassig might have only two weeks left to live. They were desperate to save him, and thought that Cohen would have contacts among militants in the region who could lobby for Kassig’s release.
Cohen is one of America’s most controversial lawyers: he has spent the past three decades defending clients that others found indefensible: Weather Underground radicals, Black Bloc anarchists, Hamas operatives. (“The entire Hamas leadership,” Cohen says, “are friends of mine and have been for years.”) Cohen was the defence lawyer for Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Suleiman Abu Ghaith – the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure to face trial in a US federal court since the 9/11 attacks – who was sentenced to life in prison in September.
Without giving it much thought, Cohen let the callers down gently: he had never dealt with Isis before, and there wasn’t much he could do for Kassig. Besides, he had other things on his mind. After pleading guilty to failing to file tax returns and obstructing the US Internal Revenue Service, Cohen is going to prison next month to serve an 18-month sentence. He believes that the IRS has been hounding him – “for seven solid years” – because of his controversial clients. “It never fucking ends,” he said. “$600,000 in legal fees … $100,000 in accounting fees, rumours, subpoenas, interrogatories.” In April, he decided to plead guilty to put a stop to it all. “I finally made the decision,” he said, “I’ll go to jail and do [legal] work for prisoners. I don’t give a shit.”
A few days later, as he returned from court to the plant-filled loft in Manhattan’s East Village that serves as his home and office, Cohen got another phone call. It was his old friend John Penley – a photojournalist, activist and navy veteran, who sometimes worked with the group Veterans for Peace. “From nowhere,” Cohen recalled, “he says, ‘Would you make a public statement on behalf of Peter Kassig?’” Penley later explained that he had reached out to Cohen because Kassig was a fellow veteran – he served as an army ranger in Iraq in 2007 but was later given a medical discharge – and Penley thought “there was a chance to save his life”.
To Cohen, it seemed like fate. “Here’s two calls within a week,” he said. He told Penley he would see what he could do, and asked his assistant to compile a dossier on Kassig, which included an interview he’d given to Time magazine before his capture, about his humanitarian work with Syrian refugees. As he leafed through the documents, Cohen saw something of himself – and the young activists he’d defended over the years – in Kassig. “I was thinking, if I was 25 or 26 in this day and age, I’d be in refugee camps in the Middle East,” Cohen recalled. “And that might easily be me as a hostage.”
But what really spurred Cohen into action was a letter Kassig had written to his parents in Indiana while in captivity, which they had released to the media a few days earlier. (Kassig’s parents chose not to comment on this story.) In the weeks to come, as Cohen flew to Kuwait and then Jordan in an audacious bid to negotiate Kassig’s release, he thought often of the letter’s heartbreaking final paragraph:
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.
“I read those words and I started to well up,” Cohen said. That’s when he picked up the phone, called his best jihadist contact, and launched an improbable series of back-channel talks – reported here for the first time – in which Cohen, with the encouragement of the FBI, persuaded senior clerics and former fighters aligned with al-Qaida to open negotiations with Isis in an attempt to save the life of an American hostage.
Revealed: the secret talks to save Isis hostage Peter Kassig. Video by Laurence Topham, Phoebe Greenwood, Alex Purcell, Shiv Malik and Mustafa Khalili
The man Cohen called was a Kuwaiti member of al-Qaida, a veteran of the Afghanistan war and former Guantánamo detainee, who had helped him contact senior al-Qaida figures when he was building the case for the defence in the trial of Bin Laden’s son-in-law, Abu Ghaith. In the process, the two had become “very close”, Cohen said. (For security reasons, the Guardian is not disclosing his identity.) Cohen and his translator came to refer to the Kuwaiti as “Food”, because whenever they met him, dishes piled with steaming meat, lobster, grilled fish, and shrimp were served.
Cohen has spent a lifetime negotiating on high-profile cases, but the operation to free Kassig was something new for him. When Cohen deals with the US government in the courtroom or phones up Hezbollah, there is always a clear process. Even if the clock is ticking, as in a death row case, “you know if this person says this is the deal, that’s the deal”, he said. With Isis, Cohen didn’t even know where to begin. All he knew was that he had to create a channel to the group’s leadership.
On the phone, “Food” told Cohen he had recently been involved in successful hostage negotiations with the second largest Islamist rebel group in Syria, the al-Nusra Front. In September, he had helped secure the unilateral release of 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers who had been captured in the Golan Heights two weeks earlier. Cohen asked Food what he thought about Kassig’s situation. The reply was terse: “He’s gonna die.”
At this point, Cohen tentatively laid out his plan. The US wasn’t going to pay a ransom or agree to a prisoner swap, and they weren’t going to stop bombing Isis, as Jihadi John demanded. But maybe there was another way of persuading them to release the American. Instead of trading lives for money, Cohen suggested that Isis could dedicate Kassig’s release to Muslim political prisoners around the world, including those in Guantánamo. “You make political gestures that are more powerful than six million dollars,” Cohen explained. Food, who was no fan of Isis, paused, and then said he liked the plan but that he would have to consult a few people about it. The next day, he rang Cohen and said: “We’d like to save this guy.”
The “we” referred to a loose collective of Food’s allies in Kuwait – which included a few fellow ex-mujahideen fighters, but also some academics, doctors, and Salafist clerics, at least one of whom is named as a terrorist on a US sanctions list. Cohen described them as “older guys who’ve been around” – veterans of al-Qaida and Afghanistan, whose strategic outlook had evolved over time. Though they despised the west, they’d come to appreciate what could be achieved through politics rather than violence, Cohen said. They made decisions by consensus, and according to Cohen, always framed discussions in terms of “we have met, we’ve collectively decided certain things, we’ve got to get back to people; folks are of the opinion, people believe.” Cohen called them “the Food group”.
The Food group hated Isis, which they believed was harming Islam and helping justify foreign interventions by the US and its client states – Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. They also cared about Kassig’s fate. He converted to Islam and had taken the name Abdul-Rahman during his year in captivity. This, they thought, made the idea of executing him particularly heinous. But despite these profound disagreements with Isis, they had strong ties to the group and with one Isis “cabinet member” in particular. They were Cohen’s only route to Kassig.
Food told Cohen that he couldn’t conduct complex talks over the phone. Cohen would have to fly to Kuwait. Cohen agreed, but before he hung up, he asked Food one last question – the same question he’d ask almost every day for the next five weeks: “Is Kassig still alive?”
Now that he had opened a possible channel to Isis, Cohen knew he would have to bring US officials on side. He foresaw a point sooner or later when he might need officials to help him clear potential diplomatic roadblocks. He was also concerned that without official sanction, he might be arrested. But reaching out to the US government was a big step for Cohen – he said it was the first time he’d ever felt “on the same page” as his lifelong antagonists. He quickly contacted a US official he thought he could trust, a federal prosecutor who Cohen had battled in court but come to respect. “I think he’s got a pretty good idea of who I am, why I am,” Cohen recalled. “I basically told him everything.” That included, with Food’s permission, revealing who he had been communicating with.
The two lawyers knew that they needed to act quickly – it had already been a week since Isis had released footage of Alan Henning’s execution. On 10 October, just hours after they had first spoken, the prosecutor put Cohen in touch with an FBI counterterrorism official at the Washington field office, which deals with international hostage rescue. (The FBI has requested that the Guardian not identify the official, who we will call “Mike” – not his real name.) Cohen had dealt with a lot of FBI agents over the years, but he found that he liked Mike. Although Cohen saw Mike as a “true believer” – an American patriot – he said the FBI agent understood that it was sometimes necessary to talk with the most hated of enemies.
Between 10 and 12 October, the three engaged in a rapid series of conference calls – Cohen at his home, the FBI official in Washington, and the federal prosecutor at his offices. Together they went through the tentative proposal for Kassig’s unilateral release and hammered out the terms of engagement. Mike repeatedly reminded Cohen that he would be travelling as a private citizen and was not at liberty to promise anything from the US in return for Kassig’s freedom. In turn, Cohen explained that the last thing he wanted to be was a representative of the US government. He would work transparently, Cohen said, but he would not be monitored and refused in advance to give debriefings on his contacts. His job, he said, was to feel the situation out, “build bridges” and put a process together to reach Kassig’s captors.
Stanley Cohen, lawyer, in his New York City apartment. Photograph: Tim Knox
Cohen’s other demands were simple. First, he needed a translator. The government officials were happy for him to use Marwan Abdel-Rahman, a court-certified Arabic translator who had worked with Cohen before. (Abdel-Rahman kept notes during the process, and spoke to the Guardian extensively about the events recounted in this article.) Second, Cohen needed the FBI to pick up the tab for hotels and flights. That was it, he says. “[There was] no debate – [it was like] ‘what are you talking about, $20,000 to save someone’s life?’”. The Guardian has seen receipts and forms filed by Cohen and sent to the FBI totalling $24,239.
Not everyone was happy that Cohen – who had just pleaded guilty to a felony – would be leading US efforts to free Kassig. But the US didn’t have many back channels with Isis that they could exploit in situations like these. “There was apparently some white boy from Princeton – I assume from the State Department or Department of Justice – who quipped, ‘We’re sending a Jewish anarchist lawyer who represents Hamas to the Middle East to negotiate with Isis and al-Qaida over Kassig?’,” Cohen says. “And apparently some serious true believer responded, ‘Who the fuck else would we send?’”
Cohen had his allies in place. Four days after the phone call from Penley, on the evening of Monday 13 October, he and Abdel-Rahman were boarding a Kuwait Airways flight out of JFK.
When Cohen and Abdel-Rahman arrived in Kuwait, they didn’t know what they’d be dealing with. All they had was a commitment that Kassig would remain alive while Cohen was still engaged on the ground. “They [Isis] want a discussion,” Food had told him. On 15 October, Cohen checked into the Jumeirah hotel – a place he prefers to most Kuwaiti hotels because he feels safe there. Most of the clientele are Arabs and the perimeter is well guarded. “It’s not,” he says, “the kind of place you’re going to disappear from.”
Over the next two days, Food took the lead, helping to organise meetings in Cohen’s hotel room, the dining area, and at people’s houses. Cohen met a number of al-Qaida veterans and radical clerics. In these meetings, they ate a lot of food, drank a lot of coffee, and talked politics. The conversation would often drift; Cohen occasionally caught Abdel-Rahman rolling his eyes as clerics droned on for hours about seemingly irrelevant topics, such as the failure of Nasserite movements in the Middle East. But this is the nature of negotiation, says Cohen. “I may have to spend four hours talking about abstract issues until I get to that one important sentence.” On more than one occasion, Cohen said he had to drag conversations back to Kassig.
On 17 October, Food told Cohen that after speaking to an Isis cabinet member and various warlords on the ground, he and his associates in Kuwait had decided that the only way to save Kassig was to reach out to Isis’s chief scholar, a 30-year-old Bahraini called Turki al-Binali. The young cleric was the only person who could stay Jihadi John’s knife with a single edict. And the only way to get to Binali was through his former teacher, the Jordanian Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who may be the world’s most revered living jihadi scholar. Maqdisi and Binali had fallen out over Isis’s theological legitimacy. If Cohen was going to save Kassig, he realised this dispute would have to be resolved as well.
Maqdisi is a slightly rumpled, middle-aged theologian, but his religious fatwas have influenced a generation of jihadis around the world, who have seized upon his writings as a theological justification for violence. One of Maqdisi’s most famous acolytes was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who, as leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, carried out a notoriously bloody campaign of beheadings and bombings that targeted hotels, UN offices and Shia holy places. After Zarqawi was killed by a US airstrike in 2006, his group evolved into the Islamic State in Iraq, and then Isis.
Radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada (right) listens to Islamist scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi during a celebration after his release from prison on 24 September. Photograph: Majed Jaber/Reuters
But even before the creation of Isis, Maqdisi was horrified by Zarqawi’s actions, particularly the casual slaughter of lay Shia. He believed Zarqawi had misinterpreted his teachings. This division between soldiers and scholars – between those who write the books and those who fire the bullets – has never raged so violently within the Salafist jihadi movement as it does today. This July, Maqdisi described Isis as “deviant” and rejected the legitimacy of the caliphate. He’s been supported by a friend who is another big player in this ideological conflict, Abu Qatada, a Palestinian Jordanian who lived in London for 20 years until the UK government finally managed to deport him to Jordan last year to face charges for plotting terror attacks on Americans and Israelis in Jordan in 1998 and 1999.
Like Maqdisi, Abu Qatada despises Isis. Speaking to a major western news outlet for the first time since his acquittal on terrorism charges in Jordan this summer, he told the Guardian: “What these people don’t understand is that I’ve been in this area [the Salafist sphere] for over 30 years. Our role, as Salafists … is to ignite the revolution and create the conditions to bring down the dictatorial regimes and then let others who are more qualified to take over power.
“We, the Salafists, cannot rule,” he continued. “We cannot run governments. We can’t even run a nursery school, let alone a caliphate. For Isis to claim that they are a state is a tall order, in fact they are a bunch of thugs and gangsters and have no religious credentials, none whatsoever.”
To outsiders, these arguments between al-Qaida and Isis may appear to be a mere fratricidal conflict over the finer points of the same hideous ideology. However, Maqdisi and Abu Qatada’s criticisms of Isis have sparked a deep crisis of confidence within the organisation. Isis might be the world’s richest and most dangerous jihadist group, but for a theocratic movement, not having enough religious legitimacy is a serious problem.
In response, Isis has engaged in a covert mission to buy up religious loyalty. Over the summer, members of Isis quietly approached influential radical clerics around the Arabic-speaking world, offering to help them relocate their families to Syria, and promising gifts and large sums of cash. Information about this scheme first appeared several weeks ago on the anonymous twitter account @wikibaghdady, which purports to leak insider information about Isis. Since then, the Guardian has corroborated the story.
The outreach plan is understood to be the brainchild of Maqdisi’s former pupil, Binali. The cleric, who has his own English language Facebook page, was reported to have warned Isis’s leadership council that if it didn’t secure the support of influential religious figures, the caliphate’s survival would be at risk. Two of the five scholars understood to have been offered the most generous “packages” were Maqdisi and Abu Qatada.
When Cohen told Mike about his travel plans, the FBI official was surprised. “He said ‘Maqdisi is going to meet with you?’” Cohen recalled. “I said ‘Yeah, he’s waiting for me.’ He said ‘Go’.”
On 18 October, Cohen and Abdel-Rahman flew from Kuwait to Jordan, and checked into the Four Seasons hotel in Amman. Two days later, they finally met Maqdisi, who arrived at the Four Seasons in his beat up ‘97 Hyundai. They set off for Maqdisi’s home, in a relatively poor neighbourhood 10 miles north of Amman. On the way, Maqdisi’s car broke down. Cursing and stuck in the middle of a traffic jam, Cohen said Maqdisi opened up the hood and started beating the engine with a wrench. Five minutes later they were off again.
Eventually, they pulled up outside Maqdisi’s white-stucco apartment block. After they had climbed five flights of stairs, Maqdisi’s children came rushing out of the flat to have their photo taken with Cohen, although his wife was at first wary about the presence of this “Jewish lawyer”. The flat was tidy: on the floor were children’s toys and, on the walls, framed religious quotations. They sat in the lounge, which was surrounded by book-lined shelves. As they nibbled on fruit, sweets and nuts, laid out in trays, Maqdisi’s ginger cat lounged on Abdel-Rahman’s lap.
People may find Maqdisi’s theories dangerous and morally repugnant, but those who have met him tend to like him. He’s a slight, mild-mannered man who speaks in a soft, informal Arabic. His meeting with Cohen on 20 October was the first in a series of several discussions that took place over the following 10 days. (Abu Qatada has confirmed that he was present during one of these meetings.) “I really grew to love this guy [Maqdisi],” Cohen says. “Someone described him as the Islamist [Noam] Chomsky. I think that gives Chomsky too much credit.” The admiration was mutual. Maqdisi told Cohen he appreciated his work defending Hamas and Bin Laden’s son-in-law.
Abu Qatada at his home in Amman Jordan. Photograph: Mustafa Khalili
Like the Food group in Kuwait, Cohen said, both Abu Qatada and Maqdisi saw the release of Kassig as part of a wider struggle against Isis. They told him that Kassig’s release could serve as a message to Isis’s followers and to the world that there were alternatives to the cycle of violence, which had left so many civilians dead. Maqdisi added that he, too, had been touched by Kassig’s letter to his parents.
When Maqdisi laid out his strategy to free Kassig on 21 October, it was much more expansive than Cohen had expected: the deal had to be presented as part of a much bigger picture, Maqdisi believed, in order to win over Binali. First, supporters on each side of the divide between al-Qaida and Isis would agree to stop denouncing each other as apostates and infidels. Then, if Isis agreed to stop taking hostages altogether, Maqdisi and the cohort of older al-Qaida religious scholars – much the same group Isis had tried to win over with offers of cash – would tone down their hostile rhetoric, potentially opening the door to a complete reconciliation between the two terrorist groups. As part of these larger agreements, Maqdisi would insist on Kassig’s freedom. It would effectively be bundled into the negotiations as a gesture of good faith.
The proposal had enormous geopolitical implications. It opened up the possibility of al-Qaida and Isis militants joining forces to form a powerful coalition that might even topple Bashar al-Assad in Syria. To pull off this reconciliation between master and prodigal pupil, and possibly even al-Qaida and Isis, Maqdisi asked his wife to make contact with Binali’s wife. She was to act as a bridge for rebuilding their relationship after their war of words.
There remained just one major obstacle – it would be against Jordanian law for Maqdisi to communicate directly with Binali. Having just been released in June after four years in prison for terrorism-related charges, Maqdisi did not want to risk returning to jail. It was now time for Cohen to see what he could do. On 22 October at 12.21am, he sent a message to Mike, to see whether the FBI could “reach out to Jordanian intelligence” and ask them to permit Maqdisi to contact Binali.
Later that same day, Cohen says that Mike told him he needed to know more about the specifics of what he was asking. At 3.16pm, Cohen emailed Mike the names of three men who would be the points of contact for Isis during the discussions. The list included Binali and another important Isis figure, Saad Hunaiti, once a close aid of Abu Qatada.
After further discussions with Maqdisi, Cohen put together a firm protocol which would lay out the terms of engagement. At 5.32pm, he texted Mike:
“Calls will be limited to discussions with religious scholars about the hostage and working for his release and some obvious small talk. Jordan agrees that it will not require him [Maqdisi] to make the calls from one of its intelligence locations, nor file charges against him for the calls or otherwise interrogate him about them.
“And, of course, the calls will not be controlled or tracked for purposes of military or drone attacks. The Sheikh [Maqdisi] if allowed would also like to discuss the need for a complete halt to taking hostages that are journalists, relief workers, civilians and Muslims and obviously execution of any of them by any means.”
On 23 October, at 8.29pm, Cohen got the message he was hoping for. “Was just told by my co-worker in the country you’re in, the call is a go,” Mike said in a text. The negotiations were on.
Despite what he understood as the FBI’s assurances on the protocol arrangement, Cohen was still worried about Maqdisi’s safety. He suggested that they buy new mobiles for the talks. On 24 October, Cohen, Abdel-Rahman and Maqdisi went shopping for phones downtown, about 30 minutes from the Four Seasons hotel. Though he wasn’t paying, the frugal Maqdisi ended up picking the cheapest phone he could find, an old Nokia brick, which the vendor assured him would be able to connect to the internet. When they got back to the Four Seasons, Maqdisi tried to download the instant messaging service WhatsApp – one of Isis’s favoured modes of communication – which he would need to talk to Binali. It didn’t work. Maqdisi was furious – not only had he been forced to buy a new phone, he’d been ripped off. He picked up his old mobile and punched in Binali’s number. Cohen tried to stop him, but Maqdisi said, “I’ve got nothing to hide.” As far as he understood, the US had said the Jordanians had agreed he could make the contact. It seemed perfectly safe.
Maqdisi tried to download the instant messaging service WhatsApp – one of Isis’s favoured modes of communication
By now it was evening, and for the next two hours or so, Maqdisi and Binali messaged each other on WhatsApp. Their exchange was “very warm,” Cohen says. Maqdisi jokingly called Binali “my ungrateful son” and Binali messaged back and said, “Abu Muhammad [Maqdisi] is my father. All these other sheikhs [in Isis] are my uncles.” Binali was eager to show off: he prefaced some of his messages by saying there was a drone overhead or there had just been an air strike, to impress Maqdisi. He also sent his former teacher a picture of himself wearing an ammunition vest and holding a Qur’an.
As the talks between the two proceeded, Cohen finally began to feel hopeful. Though Kassig’s name was yet to be mentioned, Cohen says he sent his assistant an email saying, “it’s gonna work”.
On the evening of 25 October, Cohen got more good news, which he shared with Mike at the FBI: “Received a message from [the Food group in] Kuwait. I am wanted back there. Told it is ‘very important’ … The phone calls are continuing here.” Mike told him to “encourage [the] process” and asked for an “honest assessment”. Cohen wrote back: “I am optimistic, more important the players are and he’s [Kassig] still alive. There is support among both the religious heavyweights and some of the important guys on the ground. My read, I follow their requests for now or this approach – perhaps the only realistic one – is done.” The reply from Mike was succinct: “Go.”
Things seemed to be progressing well, but the process was taking its toll on Cohen. He spent most of his time pacing around his hotel room, watching Lebanese satellite television, emailing his assistant in New York about his ongoing cases, and working on his patchy Arabic. After a while, his nerves began to get the better of him. He felt stressed and tired. His efforts to save Kassig had to remain secret if they were going to be successful. When he missed his wife’s 41st surprise birthday in late October, all she could tell the guests was that “Stanley was off in the Middle East”. The worst part was the uncertainty. Cohen says that he kept hearing “from the world’s leading sheikhs” that Isis were terrifyingly capricious. So despite promises delivered via Food and others, Cohen would keep waking up in the middle of the night to turn on Al Jazeera to check that Kassig was still alive. On 26 October, the night before Cohen and Abdel-Rahman were to fly back to Kuwait, they had dinner with Maqdisi at the Four Seasons. Maqdisi told Cohen that he’d had an additional WhatsApp discussion with Binali. They made progress towards a personal rapprochement and had even started to resolve their religious differences. Tomorrow, Maqdisi said, he planned on specifically broaching the subject of Kassig with him.
“Some of them will give him up for the right reasons, some for the wrong reasons, some because they want me to like them again and I’m [the one] asking for it, but they’ll give him up,” Maqdisi told Cohen.
Maqdisi added that he had received a call from Jordanian intelligence requesting his presence for a meeting the next day. He planned to meet them after his doctor’s appointment at 1pm. Cohen wasn’t panicked. He believed that the negotiation protocol meant that Maqdisi was safe. Nonetheless he sent a few short texts to Mike to see what might be up. Mike told Cohen to keep him posted.
After dinner, as Maqdisi’s cab started to drive away from the hotel, Cohen says he suddenly signalled for the driver to stop. “I just had this feeling,” he recalled. Cohen told Maqdisi that as soon as he finished with the Jordanian security services the next day, he should text Abdel-Rahman. “He laughed,” Cohen recalled, and said, “‘You worry so much about me.’ I said: ‘There’s a lot at stake here, and I like you.’” Maqdisi then gave Cohen a hug, got back into the cab and drove off.
On 27 October, Cohen and Abdel-Rahman returned to Kuwait to speak to Food about the “promising developments” that had been unfolding in their absence. That afternoon, Cohen was back in his room at the Jumeirah hotel in Kuwait City when Abdel-Rahman called to him, four doors down. Pointing to the TV, he said, “They’ve just busted Maqdisi!”
Cohen called Mike right away to find out what had just happened. Was Maqdisi being arrested for the phone calls? “We had an agreement, you guys signed off, you said the Jordanians signed off,” Cohen says he told Mike. FBI officials, however, dispute Cohen’s account. They told the Guardian that the Bureau did not provide assurances that Maqdisi or anyone else involved in this effort would be immune from possible reprisal for having made contact with Isis.
That evening, Jordanian security forces announced that Maqdisi was charged with “using the internet to promote and incite views of jihadi terrorist organisations”. “We got sandbagged,” Cohen says he told Mike over the phone. He asked Mike why the Jordanians would agree to putting together a protocol if they knew they were planning to arrest him just days later. Mike had no answer, only that he’d try to find out. (The Jordanian government has not replied to multiple requests for comment from the Guardian regarding their reasons for arresting Maqdisi and their knowledge of his negotiations with Isis leaders.)
As soon as Food and his group heard about Maqdisi’s arrest, they suddenly became suspicious of Cohen, and blamed the American government for having orchestrated the whole affair. “There I am, for the first time in 30 years defending the US government, wanting to vomit and saying, ‘No, I’m telling you, I believe the US was totally caught with its drawers down here,’” Cohen recalled. A couple of days later, Cohen says a member of the Food group told him that some of their number had received visits from the Kuwaiti intelligence services. Members of the group were warned, “If you meet with Stanley – using my first name, like we’re first cousins – we’re going to arrest you,” Cohen said. “What’s going through my mind is that this is out of control, that we’ve been betrayed, that this is not mere happenstance.”
On 30 October Cohen emailed Mike, telling him that he was going to return home. “Plug’s been pulled for now on talks,” Cohen wrote. He flew back to New York the following day. The day he returned, he sent a three-page appraisal of the situation to an FBI counterterrorism division official. He said that a “golden opportunity” to obtain Kassig’s release may have been lost:
“I full well understand that an agenda independent of the Kassig release may have been under way. On the other hand, I saw no such evidence of it and the protocol which was agreed upon among myself and the folks in Jordan, with your knowledge and approval, was well under way and moving ahead – I thought – with positive indicators until the Sheikh’s arrest and the apparent visit of Kuwati intelligence to my “contacts” in that country.”
Every day from 1 November onwards, Cohen would check in with Food and others about Kassig’s status. He’d report back to Mike with the news that Kassig was still alive, but Cohen heard little in return. Finally, on 7 November, Mike wrote back, “The only option that appears to be gaining traction is to engage the Jordanians regarding the Sheikh [Maqdisi]. My co-worker in Amman is going to speak with … contacts and will get back to me this weekend with any new information. Preliminary discussion sounds like a long shot though.” (The FBI would not reveal to the Guardian who this “co-worker” was.)
On 10 November Mike sent Cohen a pessimistic message: “Given the current activities there and the number of people being taken into custody, it doesn’t look like the US will have much influence.” That same day, he confirmed that the US wasn’t going to be able to free Maqdisi.
Desperate to salvage something from the deteriorating situation, Cohen proposed a different approach. Instead of attempting the much harder task of securing Maqdisi’s release, perhaps the Food group could be given some assurances by the Kuwaiti government that if they restarted their conversations with Cohen, they’d remain free from harassment.
On 12 November, Cohen sent Mike another update. “Just received a message from Kuwait. Kassig is safe.” The next day Cohen got some more good news: Mike had made some progress. “Request was made to the Kuwaitis. Still waiting on a response.” At this point Cohen thought, if the US was asking Kuwait for this small favour, it was sure to be granted.
The FBI told the Guardian that it would not discuss whether other government agencies were involved in this process. Its chief spokesman, Paul Bresson, said: “The FBI’s top priority in international kidnapping investigations is the safe return of our citizens. Because the circumstances are different in each case, the FBI works closely with the rest of the US government to consider all viable and legally permissible options to secure their release. To preserve these options, and out of respect for their loved ones, we rarely discuss these details publicly.”
Cohen is still angry about the way the negotiations ran aground. He wants to know why the protocol he’d established was violated by the Jordanians, and why the US government failed to intervene at a crucial moment to get Maqdisi released from custody – why the US wasn’t able to get Jordan and Kuwait to cooperate to save an American citizen. “I want every mother and father in this country to understand that when push comes to shove, it could be their kid.”
On Sunday 16 November, Cohen says he had his bags packed and ready by the door when he awoke to the email that he had been dreading: “We’re hearing terrible news”, wrote Mike at 5.25am. “Wanted to know if you heard anything from you’re (sic) contacts.”
“Oh my God. Just woke up to see your message”, Cohen replied. “I have reached out. Will get back to you as soon as I hear.”
At 7.07am, Cohen contacted Mike again: “[Food] is saying that he received a confirmation … That Peter was killed.”
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