At least four hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State, including the executed American journalist James Foley, were waterboarded in the early part of their captivity, according to people familiar with the treatment of the kidnapped Westerners.
Mr Foley was among the four who were waterboarded several times by Islamic State (Isis) militants who appeared to model the technique on the CIA’s use of waterboarding to interrogate suspected terrorists after the 11 September, 2001, attacks.
The victims of waterboarding are often strapped down on benches while cold water is poured over a cloth covering their faces, which makes them feel like 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 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 Mr Foley, were held in Raqqah, a city in the north-central region of Syria.
Mr Foley was beheaded by the Islamic State last week in apparent retaliation for US 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 Mr Foley’s killing that was released by the militant group. Two other Americans and at least one UK citizen are also held by Islamic State.
A second person familiar with Mr Foley’s time in captivity confirmed he 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.”
Mr Foley’s mother, Diane, said on Thursday that she had not been previously informed that her son had been waterboarded.
The FBI, which is investigating Mr Foley’s death and the abduction of Americans in Syria, declined to comment. The CIA had no official comment.
“[Isis] is a group that routinely crucifies and beheads people,” a US official, using one of the acronyms for the militant group. “To suggest that there is any correlation between [Isis’s] brutality and past US 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 US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in Sept. 2006, when President Bush closed the CIA’s overseas prisons.
Mr 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 favourite of dictators through the ages, including Pol Pot and the regime in Burma,” said Democratic senators 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 Mr Foley, has told reporters that the American was targeted for extra abuse because his captors found pictures on his computer of his brother, who serves in the US Air Force.
Mr Francois said Mr Foley was subjected to mock executions — something suspected al-Qa’ida 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.
Mr 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.
US and British intelligence believe they’re close to identifying Mr Foley’s killer among a group of British men who had travelled to Syria to fight and appear to have held Mr Foley, Mr Francois and the others hostages.
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