The United States has changed its hostage policy and decided to communicate with designated terrorist groups holding Americans captive. The family of Luke Somers, an American journalist killed in Yemen in 2014, have asked the US president to prove the change of policy is meaningful.
Somers was killed during a failed rescue attempt by US forces, after spending nearly a year being held captive. His mother was quoted as saying she blames the FBI for his death more than she blames Al Qaeda, because all other foreign hostages returned home safely.
Referring to the FBI, Jordan Somers told the Guardian “Their advice to us was: OK, this is what we should do, be quiet, don’t talk.” They were told not to talk to friends, other families, journalists, NGOs or even senators. Jordan says they were told, involving the latter could cause delays. Fearful of the possible impact on Luke, they obeyed even as their disenchantment grew.
Obama’s recent shift in policies has drawn criticism that it will lead to an “American hunt” around the world.
US President Barack Obama announced the new hostage policy on Wednesday, including the formation of an interagency “fusion cell” to help in the release of American hostages, mostly kidnapped by militant groups such as ISIS.
A crucial aspect of the new policy is the decision to allow government officials to negotiate with kidnappers, which critics argue will encourage outlawed groups to hunt Americans.
“These families have already suffered enough and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government,” said Obama.
Stating that families have in the past faced threats of criminal prosecution if they seek ways to pay ransom to kidnappers, Obama made it clear that the US government would no longer threaten to prosecute families in such situations.
“There have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down.”
"No family of an American hostage has ever been prosecuted for paying ransom for their loved one,” said Obama in the Roosevelt Room where Paula and Jordan Somers stood among dozens of other family members and former hostages. They hope the review will help relieve the pain of other families.
The Somers family were asked to keep their son’s situation private, but after their son’s death - which they attribute to failure by the FBI - they decided to go public about what happened and asked for the help of independent parties and investigators with experience in helping families in pain who have lost families in war torn areas.
In his Wednesday speech Obama said the change in the US policy of preventing the government from negotiating with kidnappers, will help families to not feel abandoned by the government.
"I acknowledged to them in private what I want to say publicly, that it is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down," said Obama.
"I promised them that we can do better."
However Republican House Speaker John Boehner harshly criticised Obama’s decision, warning of possible troubling consequences that Americans could face traveling around the world.
“We have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists,” Boehner said.
“The concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas.”
“It’s a good start [though],” said Nancy Curtis - mother of Theo Curtis, another US journalist held captive in Syria - to the Guardian.
“It’s all about trust,” said Jordan Somers. “Its his message, he should prove it.”