Comment on ‘The race to save Peter Kassig’ by Younes et al (Guardian, 18 December, 2014)

Comment on ‘The race to save Peter Kassig’ by Younes et al (Guardian, 18 December, 2014) by Dr. Richard Marsden

On Thursday, December 18, 2014, The Guardian published ‘The race to save Peter Kassig‘ by Ali Younes, Shiv Malik, Spencer Ackerman and Mustafa Khalili. To refresh memories here is the preface to the story:

The American aid worker was killed by his Isis captors on 16 November. Here, for the first time, is the story of an extraordinary effort to secure his release, which involved a radical New York lawyer, the US government, and the world’s most revered jihadi scholar.

Listen to The Guardian team tell of the daring and extraordinary effort to secure Kassig’s release.

The radical New York lawyer in question is Stanley Cohen, ‘one of America’s most controversial lawyers’. In January he begins an 18-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to a charge from the US Internal Revenue Service. The Guardian article tells a gripping tale of how Cohen put together a team of Islamic scholars and al-Qaeda fellow-travellers to negotiate the release of Peter Kassig from Islamic State’s captivity—only to be thwarted at the last minute by an ill-timed intervention by Jordan’s secret service.

Clearly it’s an important story deserving of a wide readership. How curious then that The Guardian first broke the story just before Christmas, when readers are busy with other things, and that since then corporate news media in the United States have ignored it. On Twitter it’s another matter. Cohen is lauded as a hero for selflessly attempting a rescue mission while the authorities did nothing and his prison cell beckoned. There is talk of a film deal. The Pardon Stanley Cohen movement has more of a spring in its step.

All well and good, then.

And yet, to my ears, ‘The race to rescue Peter Kassig’ does not ring true. Lest it be sanctified by Hollywood without the bother of critical evaluation, I want to register some questions and comments so that we might better understand the fate of Peter Kassig. I fear that Guardian readers, the article’s authors, and even Stanley Cohen, have been taken advantage of by altogether more diabolical forces.

1. Let’s start at the beginning: Where is the evidence that Peter Kassig was ever held captive by ‘Islamic State’ or that they decapitated him? This is so widely assumed that the question is seldom asked. It should be. Questioning assumptions should be a starting point for investigative journalists. If he is to be ‘rescued’ we ought to ask, From whom and where?

Surely the 15 minute video ‘Although the disbelievers dislike it’ is all the evidence we need, even if few have seen it? I do not think so. I’ve studied it carefully and can find evidence only of the Tarantino-like film making skills of whoever created this little masterpiece of deception. (See ISIS Lessons in Terror Marketing: How to Change the World by Deception). No one is decapitated in that video; not anyone of those Syrian servicemen; not Peter Kassig. It’s all camera angles, special effects and clever editing.

What about Kassig’s severed head at the feet of ‘Jihadi John’ in the final segment of that video? It certainly looks like a severed head and it resembles Kassig’s and this is proof of what exactly? The props department of most major theatre and opera companies can produce a severed head on demand, even of a specific individual. Here the Royal Shakespeare Company shows how it is done. Props departments have their counterparts in film; they’re called digital artists. Look carefully: ‘Kassig’s head’ is a digitally inserted prop. It’s not proof of Kassig’s death. It’s proof that someone is attempting to deceive us.

Questions such as these are not asked because ‘we are passive consumers of the pornography of violence’ (Will Self, The Guardian, 2014-12-23). Effectively, public opinion defers to the testimony of ‘Jihadi John’. So when he says ‘This is Peter Edward Kassig, a US citizen of your country’ it surely must be true. From this shaky assumption Ali Younes, Shiv Malik, Spencer Ackerman and Mustafa Khalili set forth on their investigation.

2. Strictly speaking, the byline of ‘The race to save Peter Kassig’ should be ‘Stanley Cohen as told to Younes et al’ for the entire account is based on what Cohen told them he recalled, felt and did. The article reads like an extract from a novel, in which Cohen is the protagonist and Younes et al attempt to breath some life into the character by seeing the world through his eyes. For example, Cohen ‘had other things on his mind’; ‘as he returned from court’; ‘To Cohen, it seemed like fate’; ‘Cohen saw something of himself.’ And so on. The entire article is written like this.

Investigative journalism surely calls for more critical distance from those it investigates. This is especially important since three of the central players in this drama are anonymous and we have no way of checking their account: the FBI official (‘Mike’), the federal prosecutor and an ex-Guantanamo, ‘Kuwaiti member of al-Qaida’ (‘Food’). Essentially, Cohen speaks for them and the coauthors document what he says. The article’s rhetorical style leaves readers no room to make up their own minds about what happened.

3. Even fictional narratives must be plausible; this article stretches plausibility to its limit.

(a) Readers are asked to believe that the United States, with its vast intelligence and diplomatic resources, has no one capable of negotiating with Islamic State for the release of one of its citizens—apart from this maverick Jewish soon-to-be imprisoned lawyer. If so, what’s the point of those ‘diplomats’ in that vast US ‘embassy’ in Baghdad?

(b) How plausible is it that Cohen was given a free hand to negotiate with Islamic State? Let’s look at what he so nearly did with it. According to the article, he concluded that the only way to achieve Kassig’s release was to bring about rapprochement between Turki al-Binali and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi; or, put another way, to bring about reconciliation between ISIS and al-Qaeda. No kidding. And this would be a good thing? The life of this one American would be worth this exorbitant price would it? Apparently so. The US intelligence and diplomat community, it would seem, was indifferent to this prospect, which, but for the bungling interference of Jordan’s secret service in arresting al-Maqdisi, would have come about.

(c) How likely is it that Jordan’s secret service would act contrary to the wishes of their American counterparts, especially on a mission of such vital importance?

(d) Why would anyone reasonably expect ‘Islamic State’ to be so magnanimous as to free Kassig just so it could have the pleasure of dedicating his release ‘to Muslim political prisoners around the world, including those in Guantánamo’, as Cohen suggested? What is there in ‘Jihadi John’s’ demeanour that suggests this? Yet this prospect, apparently, was enough for Islamic State to agree that Kassig would not be harmed ‘while Cohen was still engaged on the ground.’

(e) The ‘tentative proposal for Kassig’s unilateral release’ was put together by Cohen with the help of three anonymous characters—the FBI official (‘Mike’), the federal prosecutor and an ex-Guantanamo, ‘Kuwaiti member of al-Qaida’ (‘Food’). Why would they want to conceal their involvement in this noble but tragic rescue mission, when others with more to lose are named?

(f) Turki al-Binali is an elusive character. Just 30-years old, but ‘Isis’s chief scholar’ ‘who has his own English language Facebook page’ and ‘the only person who could stay Jihadi John’s knife with a single edict.’ (‘Jihadi John’, then, is in charge.) Just as ‘Jihadi John’ is a man whose face we have not seen and whose voice is not authenticated, Turki al-Binali is encountered more in the virtual realm than in the flesh. No one actually sees him during these negotiations nor is there any mention of where he is physically located. It’s all done via WhatsApp.

(g) Why would the venerable Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, newly released from 5 years in a Jordanian prison, want to jeopardize his freedom by messaging with al-Binali, Islamic State’s ‘scholar-in-arms’, over such a harebrained scheme and then have his private conversations published in a national newspaper for the whole world to gawp at? Incredibly, he takes the word of Cohen, who he has just met, and his anonymous FBI handler (‘Mike’).

(h) In fact, it’s not clear why al-Maqdisi, ‘who may be the world’s most revered living jihadi scholar’, would agree to meet with Cohen in the first place, let alone immediately invite this stranger into his home. ‘The flat was tidy: on the floor were children’s toys and, on the walls, framed religious quotations.’ This is as close as we come to an explanation:

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’.”

As easy as that then. Could the following help explain this instant cordiality? In an article published in the Arab Daily News, October 28, 2014, one of the authors of ‘The race to save Peter Kassig’, Ali Younes, writes of an interview he conducted with the said Abu Mohamad al-Maqdisi. (There they are together in two photographs, friendly as anything). Younes reveals that he had spoken with al-Maqdisi ‘on several occasions in the past few weeks’. This is the very period that Cohen claims to have been communicating with al-Maqdisi. It surely wasn’t the case that one of the authors of ‘The race to save Peter Kassig’ was a party to these negotiations? We would have been told. Wouldn’t we?

(i) According to ‘The race to save Peter Kassig’ al-Maqdisi and al-Binali tried to reach an agreement on the release of Kassig, not by meeting face-to-face, speaking on the phone or even by writing letters, but via 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.

Quite touching. These are Cohen’s recollections, mind, not al-Maqdisi’s or al-Binali’s.

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.

I cannot even imagine the bookish al-Maqdisi using WhatsApp. Is this really how Jihadi scholars do business these days? They are so trusting. Neither could know for sure who he was messaging with. Having ‘made progress towards a personal rapprochement’ they were to ‘resolve their religious differences’—by WhatsApp. This is how the reconciliation between Islamic State and al-Qaeda was to be achieved? This is how the fate of this young man was to be decided? This is the very best the United States could do to rescue him?

Incidentally, where was al-Binali during these exchanges? This isn’t mentioned in the article. Did Cohen or anyone on his team see him or know where he was? Other than by his appearances on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, how would the skeptical know that the elusive al-Binali actually exists?

For these and other reasons I am not at all persuaded by ‘The race to save Peter Kassig’. I do, however, have a more plausible explanation of the events depicted in the article. As I have argued at length elsewhere, the suite of Islamic State beheading videos (of Foley, Sotloff, Henning and Haines, along with ‘Although the disbelievers dislike it’) are works of military deception (MILDEC) aimed primarily at Western public opinion. No one dies in those videos. Their immediate objective was to facilitate Anglo-American military reengagement in Iraq (unthinkable only a few months ago) by goading an emotional reaction among Brits and Americans. Mission accomplished. Their broader objective is to disguise the real forces behind Islamic State and their motives. Things are not as they seem. I do not know for sure who is behind these particular Islamic State beheading videos, other than that it is not ‘Islamic State’, but if a faction within US/UK intelligence did not create them they surely know who did.

To return to the fate of Peter Kassig and the ‘race’ to save him.

Whenever an American hostage meets an untimely demise the US feels obliged to tell us of the heroic efforts they made to save him or her, only to be foiled by circumstances beyond their control. It happens every time. For simulated hostages there are simulated rescue attempts. The day after the release of the Foley beheading video, for example, ‘senior Obama administration officials’ told of an unsuccessful secret operation to rescue Foley and several other Americans held captive in Syria. The Syrian government said it never happened. ‘The race to save Peter Kassig’ tells of the diplomatic equivalent of these heroically unsuccessful military rescue missions. Even if some or all of the participants were sincere, it was a simulated rescue that was designed to fail. Jordanian and American intelligence are like heart and lung on these matters. They work in unison. If Maqdisi was arrested just as the deal was about to be sealed it’s because the US wanted it.

No actual diplomats would fall for this pantomime, but an amateur one facing prison might. No seasoned journalists would fall for it either; they would raise questions such as the above. So what happened to these Guardianistas? The accompanying audio (by Phoebe Greenward) tells us that the ‘race’ began with ‘a series of emails obtained by the Guardian.‘ ‘Obtained’ suggests some active investigation. A more accurate word I suggest is ‘fed’ (given to Shiv Malik). By whom? And why to a British rather than an American newspaper? Mustafa Khalili’s first response when he read them—’disbelief’—was correct. But these journalists were so intoxicated by the romance of what they read that their investigation lapsed into fleshing out a narrative on the bare bones of those emails, the whole lot marinated in sentiment. The name for this is ‘creative nonfiction’, not investigative journalism.

The correct answer to ‘What happened to Peter Kassig?’ is ‘We don’t know’. This is a more honest position than seeing beheadings where there are none and taking ‘Jihadi John’s’ word as gospel. To answer the question, researching how ‘The race to save Peter Kassig’ came to be would be a good start.

December 24, 2014

Dr. Richard Marsden

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Athabasca University

Alberta, Canada T9S 3A3


Michael Hastings, The Runaway General journalist, dies in car crash

Michael Hastings, The Runaway General journalist, dies in car crash | World news |

Fortune (Oxford English Dictionary)

 1. a. Chance, hap, or luck, regarded as a cause of events and changes in men’s affairs. Often (after Latin) personified as a goddess, ‘the power supposed to distribute the lots of life according to her own humour’ (Johnson); her emblem is a wheel, betokening vicissitude.

Etymology: Latin fortūna , related to forti- , fors chance, and ferre to bear v.  Main senses: I. to carry; II. to sustain; III. to thrust, press; IV. to bring forth.

The ‘fortune’ of Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie had her breasts surgically removed because a test discovered that she carried a mutant gene, BRCA1, and feared developing breast cancer. [BR = breast. CA = cancer]

This, of course, is entirely a matter between her, her family and her medical advisers.

But there is a public issue here too. News coverage contain some misconceptions about genes. The connection to emotions is via the central role of chance, fortune or luck in our lives.

Genes determine what and who we are and DNA determines genes. Most people seem to subscribe to this view. Genes are now regarded as the causes of all manner of medical conditions. Find the underlying gene, fix it and the problem is solved.

So widespread is this view that while much attention has been paid to Jolie’s courage, the expense of genetic screening (and its patenting and commercialization), very little attention has been given to the assumptions behind the diagnosis. That’s what I want to do here for this common view about genes is wrong.

Organisms, small and large, develop as a consequence of interactions between their genes, the environment in which they live (i.e., other kinds of organisms), and random molecular interactions within individual cells. Gene mutations or variations are tested for acceptability by that environment, those organisms. Some survive, others do not. This is natural selection.

Certainly, genes are one set of causal agents, but the causation works the other way too. The social and natural environment in which we live can damage genes and their DNA. Ingesting  airborne pollutants can do it. So can being grindingly poor and oppressed. This environmentally caused genetic damage can be passed on to the next generation. Why does does this type of gene damage receive so little attention?

The causes of an organisms life are a complex combination of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ forces—although the very distinction is problematic. In no sense is the environment external to us. It is active in shaping what happens within cells. Random cellular movements and chance molecular events add another layer of complexity. We should, then, beware of simple, unitary causation.

BRCA1/2 are oncogenes, genes that regulate cell division. Mutations in these genes make cell division less stable and more likely to occur at a pathologically high rate—but how this works is unknown. Because it is unknown oncologists talk in terms of risk, chance or probability, not causation.

According to Angelina Jolie’s article in the New York Times, inheriting the BRCA1 gene increased her chance of breast cancer to 87% and increased her chance of ovarian cancer to 50%. But 87 and 50 per cent of what?  My local weather forecast tells me there is a 60% chance of precipitation tonight. Again, 60% of what? It may rain. It may not. Meteorologists don’t know for sure because several conditions have to be met for it to rain. It’s the same with breast cancer.

Mutations in these genes (BRCA1/2) are not the cause of breast cancer, they are one of several predisposing conditions. Without an explanation of the causal link between the gene mutation and the cancer there is always the possibility that the cancer may be caused by something else. It probably is.

Indeed, when we look to the small print we find a very equivocal diagnosis. Here is what the National Cancer Institute says about BRCA1/s gene mutations:

It is important to note, however, that most research related to BRCA1 and BRCA2 has been done on large families with many individuals affected by cancer. Estimates of breast and ovarian cancer risk associated with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations have been calculated from studies of these families. Because family members share a proportion of their genes and, often, their environment, it is possible that the large number of cancer cases seen in these families may be due in part to other genetic or environmental factors. Therefore, risk estimates that are based on families with many affected members may not accurately reflect the levels of risk for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers in the general population. In addition, no data are available from long-term studies of the general population comparing cancer risk in women who have harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations with women who do not have such mutations. Therefore, the percentages given above are estimates that may change as more data become available. Source (my emphasis).

Note  family members share genes ‘and, often, their environment’. What might these ‘other genetic or environmental factors’ be?

Let me also add that there are other, more natural, ways of counteracting a mutant BRCA1 gene than a double mastectomy.

I do not know enough about Angelina Jolie’s condition to comment, beyond ‘A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it’. (Jean de La Fontaine, writing in the 17th century)

I do know, however, that the commerce of medicine exerts an influence on diagnosis. Some medical conditions are practically invented so as to create a market for pharmaceuticals. The genes BRCA1/2 are cloned and patented by Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City (one of the ‘discoverers’ of these genes). The outcome of litigation on this is pending.

And emotions? For students of the course, look up ‘luck and emotions’ in the index of Ben-Ze’ev’s The Subtlety of Emotions and discovery the emotionality of luck, fortune, chance for yourselves.

NB. The featured image is of a cancer cell about to disappear down a lymph duct.

For those wanting to know more about the debate over the causality of genes, Richard Lewontin is a good place to start for he is the leading critic of biological determinism. For a brief flavour of this debate see What Genes Can’t Tell Us: An Exchange among William D. Foulkes, Hugh Young Rienhoff Jr., and Philip D. Hansten, reply by Richard C. Lewontin. The New York Review of Books, May 26, 2011.