The five hostages, from left: Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, James Foley, and Theo Padnos.Courtesy Families (Mueller, Sotloff, Kassig); Steven Senne / AP (Foley); Thomas Pritzkat (Padnos)
Five American families, each harboring a grave secret, took their seats around a vast dining table at the home of David Bradley, a Washington, D.C., entrepreneur who owns the media company that publishes TheAtlantic. It was May 13, 2014, and in the garden beyond the French doors, where magnolias and dogwoods were in bloom, a tent had been erected for an event that Bradley’s wife, Katherine, was hosting the following evening. The Bradleys’ gracious Georgian town house, on Embassy Row, is one of the city’s salons: reporters and politicians cross paths at off-the-record dinners with Supreme Court Justices, software billionaires, and heads of state.
The families weren’t accustomed to great wealth or influence. Indeed, most of them had never been to Washington before. Until recently, they had not known of one another, or of the unexpected benefactor who had brought them together. They were the parents of five Americans who had been kidnapped in Syria. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had warned the families not to talk publicly about their missing children—and the captors had threatened to kill their hostages if word leaked out—so each family had been going to work and to church month after month and reassuring colleagues and neighbors and relatives that nothing was wrong, only to come home and face new threats and ransom demands. After hiding the truth for so long, the families were heartened to learn that others were going through the same ordeal, and they hoped that by working together they might bring their children home.
Bradley, who is sixty-two, has a priestly presence: meek, soft-spoken, hands clasped in his lap. He is pale and nearly bald, with a ring of vivid white hair. His courtly demeanor disguises considerable ambition and persistence. His publishing company, Atlantic Media, has amassed half a dozen titles, from National Journal to Quartz. He was drawn into the families’ tragedy because he had helped to free hostages once before. In 2011, Clare Gillis, a freelancer who had contributed a few stories to The Atlantic’s Web site, was captured in Libya, along with two other reporters, by soldiers loyal to the government of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. (A fourth reporter was killed.) Bradley was surprised to learn that the U.S. government was not involved in negotiating the return of the hostages.