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Islamic State tortured captive Westerners, including James Foley

Journalist James Foley in Aleppo, Syria, in August 2012.

WASHINGTON — At least four hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State, including an American journalist who was recently executed by the group, were waterboarded in the early part of their captivity, according to people familiar with the treatment of the kidnapped Westerners.

James Foley was among the four who were waterboarded several times by Islamic State militants who appeared to model the technique on the CIA's use of waterboarding to interrogate suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The victims of waterboarding are often strapped down on gurneys or benches while cold water is poured over a cloth covering their faces; they suffer the sensation of feeling they are drowning. "The wet cloth creates a barrier through which it is difficult — or in some cases not possible — to breathe," according to a May 2005 Justice Department memo on the CIA's use of the technique.

President Barack Obama has condemned waterboarding as torture.

"They knew exactly how it was done," said a person with direct knowledge of what happened to the hostages. The person, who would only discuss the hostages' experience on condition of anonymity, said the captives, including Foley, were held in Raqqah, a city in the north-central region of Syria.

James Foley was beheaded by the Islamic State last week in apparent retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq where the militant group has seized large swaths of territory. The group, which also controls parts of Syria, has threatened to kill another American, journalist Steven Sotloff. He was seen at the end of a video showing Foley's killing that was released by the militant group. Two other Americans are also held by Islamic State.

A second person familiar with Foley's time in captivity confirmed Foley was tortured, including by waterboarding.

"Yes, that is part of the information that bubbled up and Jim was subject to it," the person said. "I believe he suffered a lot of physical abuse."

Foley's mother, Diane, said in a brief phone interview Thursday that she didn't know her son had been waterboarded.

The FBI, which is investigating Foley's death and the abduction of Americans in Syria, declined to comment. The CIA had no official comment.

"ISIL is a group that routinely crucifies and beheads people," a U.S. official, using one of the acronyms for the militant group. "To suggest that there is any correlation between ISIL's brutality and past U.S. actions is ridiculous and feeds into their twisted propaganda."

Waterboarding was one of the interrogation techniques adopted by the CIA and sanctioned by the Justice Department when the agency opened a series of secret overseas prisons to question captured terrorism suspects.

Three CIA detainees — Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaida and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — were waterboarded while held in secret CIA prisons. Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was waterboarded 183 times, according to a memo issued by the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.

All three men, along with 11 other so-called high-value detainees, were transferred to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in Sept. 2006, when President George W. Bush closed the CIA's overseas prisons.

Obama on entering office outlawed the use of coercive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.

Critics of waterboarding have said for years that the practice endangered Americans, putting them at risk that they will be subjected to the same brutal treatment at the hands of the enemy.

"Waterboarding dates to the Spanish Inquisition and has been a favorite of dictators through the ages, including Pol Pot and the regime in Burma," said Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island in an op-ed in 2008. "Condoning torture opens the door for our enemies to do the same to captured American troops in the future."

The Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to release a report asserting that waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques used by CIA operatives were not effective, according to Feinstein who chairs the committee. Former agency employees dispute that conclusion.

French journalist Didier Francois, who was imprisoned with Foley, has told reporters that Foley was targeted for extra abuse because his captors found pictures on his computer of his brother, who serves in the U.S. Air Force.

Francois said Foley was subjected to mock executions — something suspected al-Qaida operative Nashiri also endured while being held in a secret CIA prison, according to a report by the inspector general of the CIA. The Justice Department did not sanction mock executions.

Francois was kidnapped by the Islamic State in June 2013 and held for 10 months. He and three other French journalists were released near the Turkish border.

U.S. and British intelligence believe they're close to identifying Foley's killer among a group of British men who had traveled to Syria to fight and appear to have held Foley, Francois and the others hostages.

On Wednesday, Sotloff's mother released a video, making an emotional plea for the leader of the Islamic State to free her son.

"Please release my child," Shirley Sotloff said. "And as a mother, I ask your justice to be merciful and not punish my son for matters he has no control over."

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