WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After Islamic State’s beheading of journalist James Foley, President Barack Obama’s administration is making little headway in efforts to secure the release of three other Americans held by the insurgent group in Syria, officials said.
Journalist Steven Sotloff and two others whom Reuters is not naming are among fewer than 10 Westerners that Islamic State (IS) is holding in kidnappings that until recently were aimed at simply raising ransoms, they said. The U.S. government has said it does not pay ransoms or negotiate with IS.
Washington has contacted about two dozen countries for help in freeing the three, but no foreign government appears to have influence over or even significant contact with IS, which has declared an Islamic caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.
“What we’ve found is that ISIS isn’t responsive” to outreach, said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity and using an alternate acronym for the group.
Another administration official said Washington was working with other Western countries whose citizens are being held hostage, and with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and others in the region thought by the United States to possibly have influence with the groups Al-Nusrah and IS.
The hostages’ fate received little public attention until Islamic State posted an online video on Aug. 19 showing Foley’s beheading. It now presents a frustrating challenge for Obama.
Islamic State “is far more difficult to deal with” than Iran or the militant group Hezbollah, which also took Americans captive, said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official now at the Brookings Institution think-tank. The group “wants to terrorize Americans, it’s not really interested in deals.”
U.S. officials and supporters of the remaining hostages requested that most details about them and efforts to free them be withheld.
One is Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist kidnapped in Syria in August 2013. At the end of the video depicting Foley’s murder, a militant holding Sotloff threatened his life.
Sotloff’s mother Shirley appealed on Wednesday in a videotaped message to Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for her son’s release.
One of the other U.S. hostages is a female aid worker, age 26, for whom Islamic State has demanded $6.6 million in ransom, according to ABC News.
Lisa Monaco, Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, has been “very deeply involved in this,” the senior U.S. official said. Monaco, along with the State Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been in contact with hostages’ families, the official said.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said, “ The Administration has had regular interactions with the families of those Americans who have been held hostage in Syria since the kidnapping of their loved ones. These interactions included representatives from all the relevant agencies, including the Department of State, the FBI, the Intelligence Community, and the White House.”
Obama authorized a covert raid in Syria in July to rescue Foley and other American hostages, but they were not at the site where they were thought to be held. Another rescue attempt would be risky for U.S. special forces and the hostages.
The American diplomatic effort also is aimed at persuading European countries not to pay ransoms, officials said.
U.S. and European officials have said that France, Spain and Italy have tolerated or facilitated ransom payments for citizens held in Syria. Islamic State released numerous European journalists this year, including two Spaniards in March and four Frenchmen in April.
The French government has denied a news report that it paid a ransom to free the four. Spain’s foreign ministry has not commented on the matter.
The U.S. policy of refusing to pay ransoms to discourage further hostage-taking “is as close as we are likely to come to governments influencing ISIS on the matter of seizing hostages”, said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst now at Georgetown University.
U.S. officials have said that Qatar played a critical role in persuading a rival group in Syria, the official al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, to free American journalist Peter Theo Curtis, whom it had been holding since 2012.
Qatar is working to help free other Americans held captive in Syria, a Gulf source told Reuters, but U.S. officials said the Qatari government has little if any leverage with Islamic State.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Sarah White in Madrid; Editing by David Storey, Toni Reinhold