For weeks before Islamic State militants released a video showing the beheading of Peter Kassig, FBI officials backed a plan to save the US aid worker. In an exclusive, the Guardian reveals New York lawyer Stanley Cohen—who has represented Osama bin Laden's son-in-law—convinced al-Qaeda-linked clerics Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, as well as an unnamed al-Qaeda veteran and former Guantanamo prisoner, to negotiate with ISIS on Kassig's behalf while the FBI kept watch. If ISIS promised to end its hostage-taking and free Kassig, the clerics vowed al-Qaeda's religious figures would end their public censure of the terrorist group. Negotiations began in Jordan in mid-October, but all did not go as planned.
As Maqdisi planned to call his ISIS contact, an Oct. 22 document was drawn up to protect the cleric from Jordanian authorities; it stated Jordan would not "file charges against him for the calls or otherwise interrogate him about them." A Washington counterterrorism official told Cohen "the call is a go," and days after Maqdisi began communicating with his contact via WhatsApp, he said he believed Kassig would be freed. But on Oct. 27, Maqdisi was arrested by Jordanian officials for "using the Internet to promote and incite views of jihadi terrorist organizations" and the talks ended. Abu Qatada confirms the events to the Guardian. Cohen says he feels betrayed. "We lost a golden opportunity to not only save Kassig but other potential hostages," he says. An official says the FBI didn't give or receive assurances that anyone would be safe from penalties; the Guardian reports the bureau did agree to pay $24,000 of Cohen's expenses, and Cohen believes the FBI may have tried to get Maqdisi freed. Click for more on the operation. (Read more Peter Kassig stories.)