WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Monday that it brought the family of the American hostage Peter Theo Curtis together with the government of Qatar in an effort to secure his release, but insisted that it told the Qataris not to pay a ransom for the captured journalist.
White House and State Department officials denied any greater U.S. role in the surprise liberation of Curtis on Sunday but did little to shed further light on the secret machinations that led to his freedom. Qatar is a close U.S. ally that also has strong ties to the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate that had been holding Curtis for nearly two years.
“The role of the U.S. government in this situation was to facilitate a conversation between Mr. Curtis’ family and the Qatari government,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters. “And from there, the Qatari government pursued through their established relationships a conversation with the individuals who were holding Mr. Curtis, and they secured his release.”
Earnest said U.S. officials discouraged Qatar from offering money, although the energy-rich Persian Gulf emirate has been known for arranging other hostage releases in exchange for millions of dollars. “The United States government certainly did not ask the Qataris to pay a ransom,” Earnest said. “In fact, we asked the Qataris, consistent with our longstanding policy, to not pay a ransom for Mr. Curtis.”
James Foley, another American journalist held by a separate extremist group, the Islamic State, was beheaded in a video released last week after his captors made unmet demands for money. More than a dozen Europeans held in the same cell where Foley had been imprisoned have been freed for ransoms averaging more than $2.5 million each, according to former hostages and others involved.
The U.S. government argues that paying ransoms only creates a marketplace that encourages the abduction of civilians and that finances terrorist groups to capture or kill even more people. Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said that “we also don’t support any third-party paying ransom” and that Washington has “not been told by the Qataris or any other party that there was anything more than” a humanitarian release in Curtis’ case.
Curtis, 45, a freelance journalist, was traveling in Turkey near the Syria border in the fall of 2012 when he was last heard from. U.S. officials said they contacted two dozen countries seeking their assistance in winning his freedom. While Islamic State continues to hold several other Americans, government officials said Curtis was the only American known to be held by the Nusra Front.
Curtis was handed over to U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on Sunday. After a medical checkup, he was transferred to U.S. officials who brought him to Tel Aviv, where he remained on Monday and was receiving medical evaluation. “He appears to be in good health,” Psaki said.