Two leading jihadi clerics and a controversial American lawyer conducted
secret negotiations over six weeks to try to save the life of Islamic
State hostage Peter Kassig in an operation approved by senior US
counter-terrorism officials, it has emerged.
Stanley Cohen, the US lawyer, described to The Telegraph the extraordinary
mission involving Abu Qatada, the extremist preacher deported from Britain
to Jordan, and a fellow radical cleric as they tried to save Mr Kassig, an
American aid worker.
The mission collapsed when the second cleric, Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, was
detained by Jordan even though Mr Cohen said that he had secured a written
agreement from the Federal Bureau of Investigations that those involved in
the talks would not face arrest by America’s regional ally.
He predicted that there was now “no chance” that Islamic factions opposed to
Isil’s hostage-taking would try to secure the release of other captives,
including the British photojournalist John Cantlie.
The secret mission and the US government role were first reported by The
Guardian which was shown dozens of emails between Mr Cohen and
officials in the FBI and Department of Justice. The bureau even confirmed
that it would pay for his flights and costs for 17 days in the Middle East.
The New York lawyer, who has defended several prominent Islamic radicals,
including Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, in US courts, told The Telegraph
that the US authorities were “very well aware” that he was working with
clerics with al-Qaeda links in the covert mission.
“These were ex-Gitmo detainees, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra people,” he said, referring
to the US detention centre in Guantánamo, Cuba and another radical Islamic
faction in Syria.
“The immediate goal was to save Kassig but we also wanted to set up protocols
to free other captives and prevent future hostage-takings.”
He said that there was no discussion of ransoms or prisoner swaps. “We
proposed that they release Kassig as a gesture in honour of prisoners at
Gitmo and in Israeli prisons. We were making progress and then the
Jordanians arrested Maqdisi.
“Someone in the Jordan or US didn’t want this deal to go through. I urged the
Americans to pick up the phone to get Maqdisi released. But he remained in
prison and the captive was killed.”
Mr Kassig, who converted to Islam in captivity, was the most recent Western
hostage murdered by Isil. His body was shown in a typically gruesome
propaganda video released on Nov 16th.
British photojournalist John Cantlie
In an unusual twist, Mr Cohen worked with US authorities even as he was
submitting a guilty plea to tax evasion charges after what he called a
“politically-motivated witch-hunt” for his support for radical Islamic
causes. He begins an 18-month sentence in January after the case was delayed
while he spent time in the Middle East trying to secure Mr Kassig’s release.
FBI officials confirmed to the Guardian that senior agents at its headquarters
were kept abreast of Mr Cohen’s actions. Abu Qatada also described the
back-channel approach in his first comments to a Western media outlet,
denoucning Isil “as a bunch of thugs and gangsters” with “no religious
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