The saga of Stanley Cohen took an unexpected twist recently.

For background, see our Stanley Cohen Tag.

Short version: Cohen is a virulently anti-Israel, pro-Hamas lawyer who has defended many high-profile terrorists in court. Cohen pleaded guilty to obstructing the IRS and failing to file income tax returns for several years. He admitted in open court that the government could prove its allegations of multi-year effort by Cohen to conceal cash transactions and to fail to report income. Cohen was sentenced to 18 months in prison on November 21, 2014, and must report to prison on January 6, 2015.

There were multiple delays in his plea appearance, which struck me as odd at the time, particularly since the court record reflected that he was traveling abroad in the Middle East Gulf states. Not exactly the place you would expect to allow a person to go on the eve of a guilty plea.

Cohen did return, however; he appeared in court, and then came the explanation about his trip to the Gulf states: Cohen apparently was engaged in an ultimately futile effort to obtain the release of ISIS hostage Peter Kassig, who later would be beheaded.

The Guardian has the story, The race to save Peter Kassig:

On the evening of 3 October, the New York attorney Stanley Cohen got a phone call about Peter Kassig, the young American aid worker held hostage by Islamic State (Isis). The callers were Palestinians from the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon who knew Kassig, and they were “very upset”, Cohen recalled. They had just seen the footage of Alan Henning, a British hostage, being beheaded. At the end of the video, when the masked terrorist who has been dubbed “Jihadi John” paraded another hostage before the camera, they recognised their friend Peter.

Kassig had done relief and medical work in Sabra and Shatila, and even helped raise money for the refugees, before he was kidnapped in October 2013. “He’s a good guy,” the callers told Cohen. Given the pace of previous Isis executions – roughly once a fortnight since August – they feared Kassig might have only two weeks left to live. They were desperate to save him, and thought that Cohen would have contacts among militants in the region who could lobby for Kassig’s release.

The story at The Guardian is quite long, so read the whole thing, it’s hard to fairly excerpt. But here’s the bottom line: Cohen reached out to his contacts:

The man Cohen called was a Kuwaiti member of al-Qaida, a veteran of the Afghanistan war and former Guantánamo detainee, who had helped him contact senior al-Qaida figures when he was building the case for the defence in the trial of Bin Laden’s son-in-law, Abu Ghaith. In the process, the two had become “very close”, Cohen said. (For security reasons, the Guardian is not disclosing his identity.) Cohen and his translator came to refer to the Kuwaiti as “Food”, because whenever they met him, dishes piled with steaming meat, lobster, grilled fish, and shrimp were served.

Cohen has spent a lifetime negotiating on high-profile cases, but the operation to free Kassig was something new for him. When Cohen deals with the US government in the courtroom or phones up Hezbollah, there is always a clear process. Even if the clock is ticking, as in a death row case, “you know if this person says this is the deal, that’s the deal”, he said. With Isis, Cohen didn’t even know where to begin. All he knew was that he had to create a channel to the group’s leadership.

The deal ultimately fell apart.

Things seemed to be progressing well, but the process was taking its toll on Cohen. He spent most of his time pacing around his hotel room, watching Lebanese satellite television, emailing his assistant in New York about his ongoing cases, and working on his patchy Arabic. After a while, his nerves began to get the better of him. He felt stressed and tired. His efforts to save Kassig had to remain secret if they were going to be successful. When he missed his wife’s 41st surprise birthday in late October, all she could tell the guests was that “Stanley was off in the Middle East”. The worst part was the uncertainty. Cohen says that he kept hearing “from the world’s leading sheikhs” that Isis were terrifyingly capricious. So despite promises delivered via Food and others, Cohen would keep waking up in the middle of the night to turn on Al Jazeera to check that Kassig was still alive….

Cohen is still angry about the way the negotiations ran aground. He wants to know why the protocol he’d established was violated by the Jordanians, and why the US government failed to intervene at a crucial moment to get Maqdisi released from custody – why the US wasn’t able to get Jordan and Kuwait to cooperate to save an American citizen. “I want every mother and father in this country to understand that when push comes to shove, it could be their kid.”

Cohen blames the government (U.S. and Jordanian), but who knows.

Regardless, he seems to have made an effort, and for that he deserves credit.