How does ISIS choose its hostages?

Posted at 2:50 PM, Feb 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-16 14:53:38-05

Kayla Mueller became the fourth known American hostage to be killed as a hostage of ISIS.

But ISIS has not been too picky about whose citizens the terrorist group will take captive. Citizens of some countries such as the United States and England — nations that proclaim not to negotiate with terrorists — have been publicly executed.

Reports suggest others have been let go in exchange for millions of dollars.

Still, others serve as political messages to those within the Middle East who might oppose ISIS’ desire to create and rule a caliphate. ISIS, for example, distributed a video a Jordanian pilot who was burned alive.

In an interview with CNN, Juan Zarate, a former U.S. deputy national security advisor, said he thinks "they're sending a clear message to the Arab members of the coalition, and certainly Sunni Muslims who may be engaged in the fight against ISIS, that this is the way they're going to be treated. They're going to be treated brutally, and in fact, maybe perhaps more brutally than other members of the coalition.”

All serve a different purpose, said J.M. Berger, the co-author of the upcoming book “ISIS: The State of Terror.” ISIS has limited resources to grab people. The four American hostages all were captured within Syria.

“I think that the hostages they take are opportunistic, so they work with what they can find whether it’s somebody who’s in their territory that they capture directly or somebody that they can barter for with another group in the region,” said Berger, who serves as a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution’s project on the U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.  “What they do with those hostages is then sort of very carefully tuned to where they come from and the timing of things that are going on.”

ISIS has a goal with American hostages, even if it is unlikely the U.S. government will pay a ransom, Berger said.

“They’re very interested in manipulating perceptions of the group,” he said. “A lot of what they have done with hostages when they can’t get a ransom is they use them to make an example. Their policy and it is really a policy is to punish people who oppose them by subjecting their citizens to acts of extreme violence.” 

In the fall, the United Nations released a document showing that detailed how ISIS has killed Muslims who did not fall in line with the terrorist group’s ideals.

Berger said the deaths of Muslims have not received the same level of attention by the U.S. media. That could be in part because ISIS has not distributed videos beyond the Jordanian pilot in the same way ISIS has promoted the deaths of Americans. 

“For whatever reason, it doesn’t appear as if they’re publicizing those hostage deaths,” he said.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, has no incentive to publicize hostages taken by ISIS, Berger said.

“I think they have a concern, and it’s probably well-founded that if a hostage gets a lot of media attention, ISIS will try to do something creative with them to exploit that media attention,” he said. “So I think that’s a pretty sound policy.”

Kayla Mueller
Age: 26
Hometown: Prescott, Arizona
Occupation: Aid worker

Peter Kassig
Age: 26
Hometown: Indianapolis, Indiana
Occupation: Aid worker

James Foley
Age: 40
Hometown: Rochester, New Hampshire
Occupation: Journalist

Steven Sotloff
Age: 31
Hometown: Pinecrest, Florida
Occupation: Journalist