On the evening of 3 October, the New York attorney Stanley Cohen got a phone call about Peter Kassig, the young American aid worker held hostage by Islamic State (Isis). The callers were Palestinians from the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon who knew Kassig, and they were “very upset”, Cohen recalled. They had just seen the footage of Alan Henning, a British hostage, being beheaded. At the end of the video, when the masked terrorist who has been dubbed “Jihadi John” paraded another hostage before the camera, they recognised their friend Peter.
Kassig had done relief and medical work in Sabra and Shatila, and even helped raise money for the refugees, before he was kidnapped in October 2013. “He’s a good guy,” the callers told Cohen. Given the pace of previous Isis executions – roughly once a fortnight since August – they feared Kassig might have only two weeks left to live. They were desperate to save him, and thought that Cohen would have contacts among militants in the region who could lobby for Kassig’s release.
Cohen is one of America’s most controversial lawyers: he has spent the past three decades defending clients that others found indefensible: Weather Underground radicals, Black Bloc anarchists, Hamas operatives. (“The entire Hamas leadership,” Cohen says, “are friends of mine and have been for years.”) Cohen was the defence lawyer for Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Suleiman Abu Ghaith – the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure to face trial in a US federal court since the 9/11 attacks – who was sentenced to life in prison in September.
Without giving it much thought, Cohen let the callers down gently: he had never dealt with Isis before, and there wasn’t much he could do for Kassig. Besides, he had other things on his mind. After pleading guilty to failing to file tax returns and obstructing the US Internal Revenue Service, Cohen is going to prison next month to serve an 18-month sentence. He believes that the IRS has been hounding him – “for seven solid years” – because of his controversial clients. “It never fucking ends,” he said. “$600,000 in legal fees … $100,000 in accounting fees, rumours, subpoenas, interrogatories.” In April, he decided to plead guilty to put a stop to it all. “I finally made the decision,” he said, “I’ll go to jail and do [legal] work for prisoners. I don’t give a shit.”
A few days later, as he returned from court to the plant-filled loft in Manhattan’s East Village that serves as his home and office, Cohen got another phone call. It was his old friend John Penley – a photojournalist, activist and navy veteran, who sometimes worked with the group Veterans for Peace. “From nowhere,” Cohen recalled, “he says, ‘Would you make a public statement on behalf of Peter Kassig?’” Penley later explained that he had reached out to Cohen because Kassig was a fellow veteran – he served as an army ranger in Iraq in 2007 but was later given a medical discharge – and Penley thought “there was a chance to save his life”.
To Cohen, it seemed like fate. “Here’s two calls within a week,” he said. He told Penley he would see what he could do, and asked his assistant to compile a dossier on Kassig, which included an interview he’d given to Time magazine before his capture, about his humanitarian work with Syrian refugees. As he leafed through the documents, Cohen saw something of himself – and the young activists he’d defended over the years – in Kassig. “I was thinking, if I was 25 or 26 in this day and age, I’d be in refugee camps in the Middle East,” Cohen recalled. “And that might easily be me as a hostage.”
But what really spurred Cohen into action was a letter Kassig had written to his parents in Indiana while in captivity, which they had released to the media a few days earlier. (Kassig’s parents chose not to comment on this story.) In the weeks to come, as Cohen flew to Kuwait and then Jordan in an audacious bid to negotiate Kassig’s release, he thought often of the letter’s heartbreaking final paragraph:
I wish this paper would go on forever and never run out and I could just keep talking to you. Just know I’m with you. Every stream, every lake, every field and river. In the woods and in the hills, in all the places you showed me. I love you.
“I read those words and I started to well up,” Cohen said. That’s when he picked up the phone, called his best jihadist contact, and launched an improbable series of back-channel talks – reported here for the first time – in which Cohen, with the encouragement of the FBI, persuaded senior clerics and former fighters aligned with al-Qaida to open negotiations with Isis in an attempt to save the life of an American hostage.