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The Yellow Ribbon Project

BasharFahmi

Reporter Bashar Fahmi was working for U.S. broadcaster Alhurra when he went missing two years ago in Syria.

The beheading of American journalist James Foley — and the grisly video of the crime that showed ISIS terrorists threatening to next kill Miami native Steve Sotloff — raised a chilling question: How many other hostages might be in the clutches of the Islamic State?

The tragedy has raised awareness of the reporters who have gone missing in Syria, with their whereabouts and captors unknown.

Foley, who was taken in northwest Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012, was widely believed to originally be in the hands of Bashar Assad’s forces before the Islamic State video was released. Sotloff was taken near the Turkish border on Aug. 4, 2013, and his appearance at the end of the Foley video was surprising to many. His family had kept the story dark, hoping a media blackout might give them better negotiations with his captors.

In a June letter smuggled out by a released prisoner, then dictated from memory to Foley’s mother, the war correspondent described sharing a cell with 17 others. He said they shared stories and played makeshift board games such as Risk from scraps found in the cell. A British expert on Syria studied images of the terrain in the video and determined the site of the execution to be in the hills south of Raqqa, capital of the caliphate.

The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates about 20 journalists are missing in Syria, but the number of Americans — particularly if other families are imposing a media blackout on abductions as Sotloff’s family did — is unknown. A U.S. official told CNN after the Foley murder that the number of Americans held by ISIS is believed to be several, including kidnapped aid workers.

Foley’s murder instantly piqued concern for Texas native Austin Tice, a Marine Corps veteran who wrote for McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, and other outlets. Tice went missing Aug. 14, 2012.

On Sept. 26 2012, a video titled “Austin Tice still alive” was posted on a pro-Assad website, and raised alarms about the Syrian government’s potential role in his capture. Foreign policy experts and Syrian natives alike agreed that everything from the poor production quality to the costumes and chants seemed staged to look like jihadi yokels, calling out “God is great” while leading a blindfolded Tice up a hill. Tice stammers an Arabic prayer followed by, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus.” The video ends abruptly.

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Journalist Steve Sotloff in Libya, from his Facebook page

The last tweet before Steven Sotloff disappeared showed that his hometown was never far from the foreign correspondent’s mind.

“How much of an impact with big man #GregOden have with #MiamiHeat next season?” he tweeted on Aug. 3, 2013. It’s believed he was kidnapped the next day in Syria near the Turkey border.

Sotloff had written for TIME magazine, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, The Diplomat and more. He reported from Libya after the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, trying to piece together what happened that night when Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. One of his pieces tried to reconstruct the attack with firsthand testimony from the Libyan guards on duty at the time.

A few days before his abduction, he tweeted that he had been hit by pepper spray unleashed by riot police in Antakya, a Turkish town near the Syrian border with a notable Christian population. At the time, the Erdogan government was responding harshly to peaceful protests advocating a more democratic Turkey.

On July 31, 2013, he tweeted about the death of infamous heart-eating Syrian rebel Abu Sakkar, referring to him as “Hannibal Lecter wannabe.”

The 31-year-old freelancer who became fluent in Arabic listed his location as الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا — the Middle East and North Africa.

After photojournalist James Foley was beheaded on camera in a video released by ISIS on Tuesday, his executioner reappeared on camera holding Sotloff by the back of his orange shirt.

“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” warned the terrorist.

The very fact that Sotloff had been kidnapped surprised media. His family had kept the story dark, hoping a media blackout might give them better negotiations with his captors.

Sotloff’s parents live in the district of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who is also chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.

“They’re my neighbors. We live in a suburb of Miami, the village of Pinecrest. They reached out to us last year, August, around this time, saying that their son had disappeared, a freelance journalist,” Ros-Lehtinen told MSNBC today. “And then I met with them in Washington and been in contact with the Department of State, with everyone, the ambassador of Syria, to see what could be done, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International.”

Ros-Lehtinen said it’s “very difficult” to determine what the next move should be.

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foleyisis

The Islamic State’s official media just released a graphic video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley, who was taken in northwest Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012.

The ISIS terrorist in the video says that the beheading is revenge for President Obama’s recent airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq.

The video, viewed in full by PJM, begins with a snippet of Obama speaking about the strikes, then shifts to images of the strikes with a title that reads, “American Aggression Against the Islamic State.” The title card then says a “A Message to America.”

Foley, with a shaved head, was kneeling on the ground in an orange top and pants next to a terrorist dressed in black, with his face covered.

“I call on my friends, family and loved ones to rise up against my real killer, the U.S. government,” Foley said, clearly reading from a script and squinting in the sun. “For what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality.”

He gives a message to his “beloved parents” to not accept any compensation for his death from those who ordered the airstrikes, the last “nail” in his “coffin.” He then addresses his Air Force brother John: “Think about what you are doing. Think about the lives you destroy, including your own family.”

“…I wish I could have more time. I wish I could have the hope of freedom, and seeing my family again. But that ship has sailed. I guess all in all, I wish I wasn’t American.”

“This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen of your country,” the terrorist says to the camera, in what could be a Londoner accent. “As a government you have been at the forefront of aggression towards the Islamic State. You have plotted against us and gone far out of your way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs.”

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Warren Weinstein and his wife, Elaine

Al-Qaeda needled the Obama administration about forgetting a U.S. contractor in their custody for three years, charging the U.S. government “wants Warren Weinstein to die in prison so that it may absolve itself of responsibility regarding his case.”

Weinstein was abducted Aug. 13, 2011, by armed gunmen who burst into his Lahore home. The Rockville, Md., resident put in several years with USAID and the World Bank before becoming an economic development consultant in 2003.

In a letter and video released last fall, the 73-year-old begged President Obama for help. “You are now in your second term as president of the United States and that means that you can take hard decisions without worrying about reelection,” he said. “I hope and pray to God that you, as leader of the United States, along with your administration, will feel an adequate level of responsibility toward me and work for my release.”

In Thursday’s message released by its media wing As-Sahab, al-Qaeda addresses his family.

“Your government has not made any serious efforts for the release of the prisoner. Your government has not contacted us for his release. We are not interested in retaining the prisoner in our protection; we are only seeking to exchange him in return for the fulfilment of our demands that we have conveyed,” the terror group said, according to the English text released alongside the Arabic.

“With the permission of Allah, we will not spare any efforts for the release of our prisoners who have been imprisoned by your government for no guilt except that they had acted in defense of the Muslim Ummah against the oppression of the American government. 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,” the statement continued.

“Therefore, if you want Warren Weinstein to be released, do whatever you can to pressurize [sic] your government.”

No new images of video of Weinstein were released by al-Qaeda.

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Austin-tice

This week marks two years since American journalist and Marine Corps veteran Austin Tice went missing in Syria.

Tice’s 33rd birthday was Monday. A video showing Tice in the captivity of unknown abductors was posted online in September 2012, and the family has had no word since.

Last week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the impending anniversary, and whether Tice’s case is “on the radar” of the administration.

“These kinds of situations are on the radar of the American foreign policy and national security apparatus here in the Obama administration. It’s something that the president on a regular basis is updated on,” Earnest responded.

“And, you know, we continue to spend a great deal of time and effort and resources to safely recover or ensure the return of those American citizens who are being held hostage around the globe,” he continued. “That is something that is — is the — that is something on which the president’s advisers spend a lot of time. And it continues to be a high priority, as you’d expect.”

Tice was one of the few foreign journalists to report from Damascus after arriving in the war-torn country in May. He’d fallen in love with this part of the world on his tours as a Marine Corps infantry officer from 2005 to December 2011. Leaving the Corps with the rank of captain, Tice soon would put his studies at Georgetown Law School on hold to become a freelance journalist.

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Lawmakers prodded administration officials at two hearings on Iran nuclear negotiations on how the fate of Americans being held by Tehran is figuring into the talks — especially since Iran recently detained even more U.S. citizens.

Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, was kidnapped on Kish Island in March 2007. Amir Hekmati, a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq war, was seized in August 2011 while visiting extended family. Saeed Abedini, a pastor who was opening an orphanage in the country with the permission of the government, was arrested in July 2012.

Images of Levinson in captivity have been sporadically received by his family. Hekmati and Abedini languish in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

Last week, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, a dual citizen through his father’s Iranian heritage, and his Iranian wife, who works for The National newspaper out of the UAE, were arrested by Iran. The Post reported that they have not been allowed to contact their families, but Iranian officials confirmed Friday that they were in government custody.

Reporters Without Borders said Monday that “a freelance Iranian-American photographer who works for various news organizations including the Washington Post was also arrested, together with her non-journalist husband.”

“Her family did not want to disclose her identity. The whereabouts of the couple and the reasons for their arrest are not known,” the group said. Some reports indicated that another American journalist was seized, but this appears to have been a mix-up with the photographer’s husband.

“Before I get to the negotiation questions, I do have a question for you, Madam Secretary, about the detention of the Washington Post correspondent in Tehran, Jason Rezaian, who I understand is a dual citizen, including a citizen of the United States, and his wife who were arrested at their home last Tuesday,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked at the beginning of a Tuesday hearing with Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator in the P5+1 talks.

“Since their arrest, no one’s heard from them and two U.S. citizens working as freelance photographers are also being held. To my knowledge, no charges have been bought and the detainees apparently have no access to legal counsel,” Menendez continued. “Can you tell me what we’re doing on this regard?”

“Thank you for raising this. It is of great concern to all of us, as is the continued detention of Amir Hekmati and Pastor Abedini and our concern about Robert Levinson, who’s been missing for a very long time and we believe in Iran,” Sherman said. “We have in fact used our appropriate channels, principally the Swiss, to make known our concern about this apparent detention of an American journalist and his wife and the additional photojournalists. There is absolutely no reason for this to occur.”

“I read with interest the Washington Post editorial with which, I entirely agree, this — we are a country that believes in press freedom,” she continued. “This is a reporter who has been reporting from some time, had been in Vienna with us, in fact, during the negotiations and we call on Iran to release all of these people, including Pastor Abedini, Amir Hekmati and to help us in every way possible to return Robert Levinson home as well.”

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The mother of a decorated U.S. Marine vet held by Iran for 1,057 days appealed directly to President Obama for help on Friday, noting that her family “is constantly reminded” that her son’s case “is being raised, but there has been no real progress.”

Flagstaff, Ariz., native Amir Hekmati was seized by the Iranian government in August 2011 while on a trip, with proper visa documents from the Iranian government, to visit relatives in Tehran. He was originally sentenced to death in a quickie trial on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, retried last month and sentenced to 10 years behind bars for “collaborating” with the U.S. government.

The Flint, Mich., resident has now spent two birthdays in Iranian custody and has been held by the Islamic Republic more than twice as long as the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostages.

Behnaz Hekmati wrote to Obama “as a proud American” on the eve “of one of the most significant moments in history between the United States and Iran.”

The deadline for a final nuclear agreement was supposed to have been Sunday, but on Friday night the Obama administration extended negotiations for four more months.

“I ask you, Mr. President, to remember Amir. As you, Secretary Kerry and all the other hard-working Americans endeavor in what is no doubt painstaking and detailed work, please remember my Amir. He served his country during its times of peril and now needs his country to do the same for him,” wrote Mrs. Hekmati. “I know you have many challenges at hand, but I also know you read your letters every evening.”

“My family’s situation is made even worse, as my husband is gravely ill. He has been fighting terminal brain cancer for more than a year and recently had a stroke. He wants nothing more than to see his son once again.”

In March, Ali Hekmati’s doctor appealed directly to the Iranian government in a statement verifying the failing health of Amir’s father. “It is the family’s hope that Amir may be released to be reunited with his father, and to care for his family,” wrote Dr. Jami Foreback, an internist at McLaren-Flint hospital, stressing that “it is unclear how much time Dr. Hekmati has to live.”

Behnaz Hekmati told Obama that unlike Amir, she was not born in America but left her birth nation of Iran in 1979 “for the American dream.”

“While I am also proud of my Iranian roots and heritage (it is a great and beautiful culture and country), I cherish my U.S. citizenship. It has brought me and my family great opportunity and freedom,” she wrote. “But those freedoms have been unjustly and inexplicably torn from my son. It pains me to explain this to my grandchildren, Amir’s niece and nephew.”

“Amir was taken from me nearly three years ago, falsely accused of being a spy and sentenced to death. That sentence was later overturned due to a lack of evidence, yet still he languishes. This is a historic time for Iran and the United States. I plead that you do not forget Amir, his service, his beautiful smile and his zeal for life.”

She suggested that perhaps a furlough could be arranged for Amir to see her and Ali.

“Mr. President, the stress is nearly unbearable, but we persevere — just as I know Amir is strong. However, my husband’s situation is dire. He is weak. And he longs to embrace his son once more, to know Amir will be home to care for me and our family. Then he will be at peace, Mr. President.”

Secretary of State John Kerry last mentioned Hekmati in May. As the latest round of talks began in Vienna last month, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told reporters that “whenever we meet bilaterally, which we have done several times this round, we always ensure a discussion about Robert Levinson, Saeed Abedini, and Amir Hekmati and our efforts to bring them home to their families.”

Amir took his case directly to Kerry in a letter smuggled out of prison and obtained by the Guardian in September. After thanking Kerry for lobbying on his behalf, Amir stressed that the confessions on false charges were “obtained by force, threats, miserable prison conditions, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement.”

“This is part of a propaganda and hostage taking effort by Iranian intelligence to secure the release of Iranians abroad being held on security-related charges. Iranian intelligence has suggested through my court-appointed lawyer Mr. Hussein Yazdi Samadi that I be released in exchange for 2 Iranians being held abroad,” Amir wrote in the letter confirmed authentic by his family. “I had nothing to do with their arrest, committed no crime, and see no reason why the U.S. Government should entertain such a ridiculous proposition. I do not wish to set a precedent for others that may be unlawfully (obtained) for political gain in the future.”

“While my family and I have suffered greatly I will accept nothing but my unconditional release,” he continued. “The very same suffering that the 3 American hikers have recently suffered and many others by these unlawful tactics. My hope is that those individuals within the Iranian government who respect rule of law and international ethics will intervene in my case. As someone of Iranian heritage, I hope that the Iranian people will also support me and call on their government to respect my legal rights.”

Amir served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and was preparing to begin graduate school at the University of Michigan before he was seized by Iran.

His sister Sarah told PJM how her brother would boast about making it through boot camp while a lot of guys got weeded out during the grueling 13-week process.

“He always was so proud as a first-generation American to be able to feel like he was contributing to his country,” she said, adding that his time in the Corps and tour of duty “broadened his horizons” as he served as a linguistic bridge between U.S. and Iraqi officials. “He really felt like he had an important role and he really valued it.”

“He’s very proud of his service — the license plate on the back of his car says ‘Marine,’” she added.

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Andrew Tahmooressi meets with Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) June 21 in a Tecate prison.

Supporters of reserve Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi had hoped that Wednesday’s closed evidentiary hearing would result in the judge sending him back to the United States, but the Mexican ordered that he be returned to prison until an Aug. 4 hearing.

Tahmooressi, who served two combat tours in Afghanistan, was arrested at the San Ysidro border crossing the night of March 31 and is currently being held in the El Hongo II prison in Tecate, Mexico, for bringing guns into the country. Tahmooressi reportedly had a rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, a .45-caliber pistol and more than 400 rounds of ammunition in his truck.

Tahmooressi says he crossed the border by accident due to confusing signs that caused him to miss the last exit in the U.S. His family says he needs to be returned to the States to receive treatment for PTSD.

Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) staff met with Tahmooressi’s mother last week. “I am very dismayed by the judicial order to continue detaining Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi in Mexico. Sgt. Tahmooressi has been languishing in a Mexican prison long enough,” Rubio said in a statement this morning.

“It’s time for the Obama administration to wake up and advocate for his return home. The Obama administration’s virtual silence and inaction on Sgt. Tahmooressi’s case has been beyond troubling,” Rubio continued. “It’s sheer indifference. The Obama administration needs to step up our diplomatic efforts to bring this Marine home.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and the chairman of the panel’s Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), traveled across the border late last month to visit with Tahmooressi.

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Ohio resident Jeffrey Fowle and his family

The State Department is offering little information on the circumstances surrounding two American tourists captured by the North Korean government, saying they’re concerned about the men as they face trial in Pyongyang.

“American citizen Jeffrey Edward Fowle entered the DPRK as a tourist on April 29 and acted in violation of the DPRK law, contrary to the purpose of tourism during his stay,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported on June 6. “A relevant organ of the DPRK detained him and is investigating him.”

Fowle, 56, is from Miamisburg, Ohio, and works in street maintenance. His family’s lawyer said in a statement last month that he “loves to travel and loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places.”

Matthew Miller, 24, was reportedly arrested earlier while  traveling with a private guide contracted by Uri Tours. “A relevant organ of the DPRK put in custody American Miller Matthew Todd, 24, on April 10 for his rash behavior in the course of going through formalities for entry into the DPRK to tour it,” reported KCNA at the time.

Miller allegedly ripped up his tourist visa and declared he would “seek asylum” and “shelter” in the DPRK, the KCNA claimed.

Little is known about Miller. Uri Tours said that they were not able to reach the emergency contact listed on his travel application, but eventually Miller’s family got in touch with the company.

“As of last month, we believed Mr. Miller was in good health, and we have not heard otherwise. In addition, Mr. Miller’s family has reached out to us. However, they have requested that we keep the details of our communications private,” the company said in a Tuesday statement. “We have no other specific updates at this time.”

Uri Tours staff last saw Miller in Beijing, where they “saw him off to Pyongyang.”

“We cannot speak to Mr. Miller’s motivations or mental state. He did not express any special intentions in his tour application,” the company said. “…Our local partners informed us immediately of the situation with Mr. Miller and have expressed a great deal of concern.”

The State Department warns against all travel to the reclusive communist country, but tour groups offer trips for the curious. New Jersey-based Uri Tours is the exclusive American ticketing agent for Air Koryo, North Korea’s state-owned carrier.

“Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizen tourists have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention. North Korean authorities have arrested U.S. citizens who entered the DPRK legally on valid DPRK visas as well as U.S. citizens who accidentally crossed into DPRK territory,” says the most recent U.S. government warning, issued in May. “The Department of State has also received reports of DPRK authorities arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens without charges and not allowing them to depart the country. In the past 18 months, North Korea detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours.”

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BringBackOurBoys

President Obama urged “all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation” after the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teens were found.

Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16, were kidnapped from the kibbutz Kfar Etzion in the West Bank. Naftali was a dual citizen with an American passport.

The youths were walking home from their yeshiva about halfway between Jerusalem and Hebron, possibly hitchhiking as public transportation in the area is scarce. One of the boys reportedly got a call into Israeli police to say “we’re being kidnapped” at about 10:30 p.m. before the line was disconnected.

“With heavy grief, this evening we found three bodies. All signs indicate that they are the bodies of our three abducted youths – Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the beginning of this evening’s security cabinet meeting.

“They were abducted and murdered in cold blood by human animals. On behalf of the entire Jewish people, I would like to tell the dear families – the mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and brothers and sisters – we are deeply saddened, the entire nation weeps with you. We will give the boys a proper burial. ‘Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created.’ Neither has vengeance for the blood of three pure youths, who were on their way home to meet their parents, who will not see them anymore,” Netanyahu continued.

“Hamas is responsible – and Hamas will pay.”

Obama said in a statement that “as the Israeli people deal with this tragedy, they have the full support and friendship of the United States.”

“As a father, I cannot imagine the indescribable pain that the parents of these teenage boys are experiencing. The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms this senseless act of terror against innocent youth,” he said. “From the outset, I have offered our full support to Israel and the Palestinian Authority to find the perpetrators of this crime and bring them to justice, and I encourage Israel and the Palestinian Authority to continue working together in that effort.”

Less than a week ago, Leehy Shaar, the aunt of Gilad, was on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers and the administration to help Israel find the boys.

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