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Why Al Qaeda Released An American Hostage

3:08 PM, Aug 25, 2014 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Undoubtedly influenced by the Taliban’s success in exchanging Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the five top Taliban commanders at Guantanamo, al Qaeda encouraged Weinstein’s family to do more to “pressurize” the U.S. government into bargaining for his release. “Your continued silence on the inaction of your government will only lead to your prisoner dying a lonely death in prison after this deliberate and prolonged neglect on the part of your government.”

Unlike the Islamic State, al Qaeda did not threaten to behead Weinstein if the U.S. refused to cave to its demands. Zawahiri and other senior al Qaeda leaders do not find that to be, all things considered, a productive tactic.

Al Qaeda has, of course, brutally killed hostages in the past. Daniel Pearl’s slaying by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, in 2002 is just one example. But al Qaeda prefers to avoid such scenes and instead extract concessions without invoking outrage from the broader population. This doesn’t mean that al Qaeda and its branches won’t kill hostages again in the future, but their approach is more calculating than the Islamic State’s. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that Jabhat al Nusrah was willing to free Curtis. That doesn’t make the group any less dangerous, however. And Nusrah almost certainly won't concessions for his release. The terms of the deal, which was reportedly brokered by Qatar, are not yet fully known. But Qatar is a hotbed for jihadist fundraising, meaning Nusrah's friends likely sweetened the pot.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.   

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