Hostage Talks

Families of Italian Aid Workers Held by ISIS Fear for Their Lives After Foley’s Death

Conflicting media reports and Italy’s military support for Kurds leave families of Italians held by terrorist group in a fearful limbo.


For the last three weeks, Antonella Ramelli has not been able to talk publicly about her 21-year-old daughter, Greta, who disappeared along with her 20-year-old colleague, aid worker Vanessa Marzullo, near Aleppo, Syria in late July. Instead she followed the instructions given by Italy’s foreign ministry who “highly recommended” that she and Marzullo’s parents stay quiet while they reach out to try to strike a diplomatic deal with the captors to free the young women. So Ramelli has been posting thoughts about her daughter’s choice to go to Syria on social media, answering questions about why anyone would let their daughter go to such a dangerous place. “When you hear your daughter say, ‘Mom, in that country they are killing children so I must go and help,’ what can you say?” Ramelli wrote on her Facebook page. “Can you change your daughter who has these values and strong ideals about solidarity and human empathy? Should you?”

Last week, the families of the missing women were optimistic that such a deal was close and that their daughters, who co-founded the Hooryaty Project to deliver medical goods to Syria would soon be home. But since the gruesome beheading of James Foley and the reports that up to 20 Western hostages are being held by the Islamic State (also known as the “caliphate,” ISIS, or ISIL), their optimism has waned.

On Wednesday, quoting unnamed sources, The Guardian reported that the two Italians were being held by ISIS together with a Dane and Japanese national. But a day later, the London based al Quds al Arabi newspaper reported that ISIS had nothing to do with the Italians, and that the Italian state had already paid ransom to a rogue group of rebels who are ready to free the women, saying they are “doing well” and will be “freed within hours.”

The conflicting new reports are agonizing for the aid workers’ parents. Ramelli told The Daily Beast that she was afraid to comment on the record to the international press after what happened to Foley, saying she didn’t want to do anything to put her daughter in further danger. She did talk briefly to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, implying that reports that the women would be freed soon were accurate, or at least she chose to believe they were. “I’m doubly worried now,” Ramelli told the Italian paper. “I’m sure that in the next few days we’ll have good news, but I can’t say anything more.”

Italy’s foreign ministry has confirmed to The Daily Beast that the two women are missing, but officials refused comment on any ongoing negotiation, or with whom they may be negotiating, except to say “all diplomatic channels are being pursued.” Italy has been known to pay ransom for its captive nationals in the past. In 2004, the Italian government led by Silvio Berlusconi reportedly paid more than $1 million to secure the safe release of two aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, who were captured in Iraq, though the Italian government never officially confirmed the payment. They were released unharmed and have both since returned to Iraq to continue their aid work.

Italy’s foreign minister has admitted entering into diplomatic negotiations with ISIS to try to free Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, another Italian national reportedly being held by the group, who went missing in Syria more than one year ago. According to his family, he went to Syria to negotiate directly with jihadist militants for the release of Kurdish hostages. In June, Al-Akhbar newspaper reported that ISIS was asking for an “astronomical” ransom to free the priest, who they believed was sent as a spy.

Diplomacy may not work if the Foley killing is an example of how ISIS intends to use retaliation for military intervention. On a state visit to Iraq last week, Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi promised to send weapons to help arm peshmerga troops fighting ISIS. On Wednesday, Italy’s parliament overwhelmingly approved the measure, which means weapons shipments could begin next week. “ISIS is a threat not only to Iraq but to the entire region, to Europe, and to the world at large,” Italy’s foreign minister Federica Mogherini told Italian parliament before the vote. “It is our political and moral duty to respond to any humanitarian crisis. The lives of Christian, Yazidi and Muslim civilians are at risk.”

The families of the missing aid workers worry that Italian interference will put their daughters at risk, too. “We are optimistic and hope to be reunited soon with Vanessa and her friend Greta,” Marzullo’s father Salvatore told ANSA news. “But our anxiety is growing by the day.”