Every few days, Paula Kassig, mother of an American held hostage in Syria, tweets a plea to the Islamic State, the group more commonly known as ISIS, in some cases directed at specific members of the organization. She has sent 15 tweets in total since her son, Peter “Abdul-Rahman” Kassig, was threatened with beheading in the execution video of Alan Henning, a British aid worker, released by ISIS on October 3. In the last 33 days, ISIS has released a number of videos, but none of them show or mention Peter Kassig. It is unknown if he is still alive, but he has not been publicly executed, breaking specific social media patterns the group has been careful to establish.
ISIS has made a habit of rapidly, methodically executing their Western hostages: Each hostage wears the same attire, down to the slippers, their heads are all shaved, they recite similar speeches, and their bodies are arranged in the same fashion post mortem. The timing is equally methodical: The videos are released during the afternoon for the East Coast, and there are roughly two weeks between each video. Foley’s video was released on August 19, Steven Sotloff’s 15 days later on September 2, David Haines was killed 11 days later on September 13, and finally Alan Henning 20 days thereafter. This puts the average time between videos at 15 days and 8 hours. Twice that time has passed since Kassig was last seen.
Kassig is a devout Muslim, he changed his name to Abdul-Rahman Kassig during his travels, and he was in Syria as a humanitarian aid worker. The 26-year-old Indianapolis native was captured on October 1, 2013 while delivering hospital supplies in Deir Ezzour, Syria. Before ISIS released the video of Alan Henning’s execution, in which it showed Kassig, it sent the Kassig family an audio recording in which their son said his “time is running out.”
Since then, Al-Qaeda leaders have publicly condemned ISIS for threatening to kill a fellow Muslim and aid worker. On October 22, the day a number of ISIS members said Kassig was to be killed on social media, Abu Omar Aqidi, a leader in Jabhat al-Nusrah, an Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization, sent a series of tweets in which he asked ISIS to spare Kassig’s life. Kassig performed surgery on Aqidi, removing a piece of shrapnel stuck in a wound, Aqidi noted Kassig also helped other jihadists who were wounded on the battlefield. October 22 subsequently passed without a video being released, nor were any reliable reports of Kassig’s execution issued by ISIS or its affiliates.
It is easy to speculate that Kassig has not been killed due to the praise from an al-Nusrah leader, but the relationship between ISIS and al-Nusrah has long been tense, as they competed to take over many of the same areas (a battle ISIS has overall won). Unlike ISIS, al-Nusrah releases hostages without ransom payment, most recently American journalist Theo Padnos.
Similarly, there has been speculation Kassig may still be alive because he is such a devout Muslim. Abed Awad, an Islamic law expert, tells Newsweek, "Islamic law considers killing a fellow Muslim among the gravest of capital sins." Awad points to one specific passage in the Quran: "And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his punishment is hell…and Allah will send His wrath on him and curse him and prepare for him a painful chastisement." Islamic law, also known as Shariah, includes the scripture of the Quran, as well as Sunna, the words and teachings of Muhammad.
However, James Foley converted while held hostage and took the religion extremely seriously, and others he was held with noted that his situation did not improve, he did not receive additional meals nor did treatment from the guards improve. This may be because a convert, in the eyes of ISIS, it not a “believer.”
The group has mass executed Sunni Muslims in the past, Abdullahi An-Na'im, professor of Islamic Law at Emory University, told Newsweek. “ISIS has a different interpretation of who is a Muslim" he says. "ISIS killed Sunnis, saying they are killing them because they are not Muslims, they perceive Sunni Muslims who disagree with them as non-Muslims.” Azzedine Layachi, a Middle East expert and professor at St. John’s University, added, “The fact that he has converted should work in his interest." But, he says, the group has shown that “executing a Muslim is not the issue.”
Just as ISIS defines being a Muslim differently, it defines Shariah differently. “The problem with Shariah, but also the advantage of Shariah, there is no institutional authority which can declare the authority of Shariah, so there has always been debate about certain principles,” explained An-Na'im. “There are many things ISIS is doing, such as mass killing of prisoners of war, extreme violence, rape, destruction, which by consensus, according to mainstream of Muslims, is, both historically and contemporarily, in contrary to Shariah. But ISIS has a different interpretation. If you take selectively from the Quran, you can give a certain view. There is that verse, but there are many other verses that are about the restricting the use of force, about peaceful relations.”
Though the modern interpretation of Shariah condemns violence of this kind, terrorist organizations have turned to one particular ancient text to justify their behavior. The practice of beheading in the name of religious war is ancient, and appears in the Quran briefly: “When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.” This passage has been used by Islamic terrorist organizations to justify extreme violence and specifically beheading, most notably by Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which transformed into the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden and later morphed into the Islamic State.
While ISIS has created a number of loopholes in its definition of Islam that would allow it to legally kill Kassig, it has, at least publicly, kept him alive. Perhaps influence from traditional scholars has swayed them, perhaps the words from Al-Qaeda made somewhat of a different, but more likely, this is a matter of timing.
David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, explains, “In the past, ISIS released videos to coincide with international events, such as U.S. airstrikes. In the past couple of weeks, the only thing exceptional about U.S. involvement have been its actions in Kobani, airstrikes and dropping weapons, but that battle is still ongoing.” Kassig is one of just three known hostages remaining and the last American male ISIS hostage.
The less tragic, but less likely, reason for Kassig’s prolonged survival is a potential negotiation. Although the U.S. has a strict no ransom rule, it's possible that someone is trying to negotiate a ransom with ISIS for Kassig's life, Phillips told Newsweek. The Foley family attempted to raise funds on their own, but they felt pressure from the government not to do so. It is, technically, illegal to pay terrorists a ransom, though families of those held hostage have not been prosecuted for doing so in the past. The demanded ransom payment for James Foley was over $100 million.
ISIS has started using hostage John Cantlie as a “host” for propaganda videos and recent videos of their terrorist acts have been movie style trailers, aimed at recruiting young boys, which do not show executions. For now, ISIS has decided to keep Kassig’s fate a mystery.