Extra interest can’t save all Americans held abroad
By ADAM TAYLOR | The Washington Post | Published: January 16, 2020
Last year, President Donald Trump claimed a winning streak for securing the release of American citizens held by foreign governments and groups. “We are 38-0,” Trump said in September, adding that his own chief envoy on the issue had called him “the greatest hostage negotiator of all time.”
But this week, when U.S. citizen Mustafa Kassem, 54, died on Monday after more than six years in an Egyptian prison, the White House remained silent. It was unclear whether it considered Trump’s streak to be over.
Kassem, who worked as a New York City taxi driver, had smuggled a letter out of Cairo’s maximum-security Tora prison that appealed directly to Trump. “I am putting my life in your hands,” he wrote, according to The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan.
He was arrested in 2013 while visiting relatives in Cairo. His arrest coincided with a bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and Kassem was sentenced to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges that rights groups say were fabricated.
That Kassem saw hope in Trump is logical. The president has portrayed himself as unusually engaged with the fate of U.S. citizens held overseas; he promoted the aforementioned special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Robert O’Brien, to the position of White House national security adviser last year.
Since 2017, his administration has seen U.S. citizens held in Venezuela, Yemen, North Korea, Turkey — even Egypt — released to great fanfare. “We are very happy to have Aya back home,” he told reporters in April 2017, as he greeted Aya Hijazi, a charity worker who had been detained in Egypt for almost three years.
But unlike Hijazi, Kassem will not visit the White House. Instead, in ill health and on a hunger strike, he died. And there are many U.S. citizens who remain in limbo abroad — an estimated half-dozen others in Egypt alone. Their families watched the tragic end of this U.S. citizen’s fight, too.
Walid Fitaihi, an American detained by Saudi Arabia who is alleged to have been tortured, remains in legal limbo despite American attempts at intervention. Austin Tice, an American journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012, is still thought to be held by the Syrian government or allied forces. Paul Whelan, an American arrested by Russian security agents in December 2018, has been in and out of Moscow courtrooms for more than a year, with little clarity about his fate. After word of Kassem’s death spread this week, Whelan’s sister Elizabeth tweeted messages that directly criticized U.S. administration policy.
Trump’s focus on freeing U.S. citizens has also been praised by the relatives of those imprisoned. Some argued that the high-profile strategy was a welcome change to the quieter methods used by the Obama administration.
O’Brien, now one of Trump’s most prominent allies, was personally praised by some families who worked with him. “We know he’s a good man,” Debra Tice, mother of the missing journalist, told The Washington Post in September.
But Trump’s foreign policy is defined by its rapidly shifting focus. There are some U.S. citizens held in Iran at this moment of tension between the two nations. The family of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died after being released from North Korea in 2017, has opposed Trump’s attempts to make a deal with Pyongyang after his previous tough talk.
Trump’s savvy about spectacle resulted in O’Brien being sent to try to help rapper A$AP Rocky after he was arrested in Sweden last summer — despite little sign that the rapper wanted the president’s help.
At an event to mark Kassem’s life on Wednesday, lawmakers and activists criticized Egypt over the death. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who represents Kassem’s district and had received his letter to Trump, called for imposing sanctions on officials in Egypt — a key ally of the United States in the Middle East and a major recipient of U.S. foreign assistance.
Some argued that the United States had failed to provide the help that could have saved Kassem’s life. “Did the Trump administration adequately use its leverage? In my opinion, I don’t think so,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
Indeed, though both Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought up his case with Egyptian authorities, neither appeal made an impact. “Kassem was forgotten, although he was an American,” Hijazi said Wednesday, almost three years after her release.
Though Kassem died in an Egyptian prison, Trump will face scrutiny after the American man’s death. Trump has praised Egypt’s authoritarian leader, dubbing el-Sissi a “great president” and privately referring to him as “my favorite dictator,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
One tragic irony of Trump’s conspicuous interest in Americans held abroad is that it may have given countries an incentive to target U.S. citizens, aware that doing so will get an easily distracted world leader’s attention, for now at least.
But moreover, by presenting a scorecard for “hostages” released, Trump has reduced the complicated process for freeing citizens abroad down to a competitive game. The death of Kassem shows that it’s anything but.
Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.