Hostage-takers: COVID-19 has raised the stakes

Hostage-takers: COVID-19 has raised the stakes
© Getty Images

Hostages and political detainees are a real problem, aren’t they? I’m speaking to folks in Iran, to folks along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, those in Venezuela, Syria, and a few other spots. You guys believe that the people you hold often have value. Perhaps you can get a financial ransom; maybe the U.S. or another country will release a couple of your people in their custody. Sometimes you get something else of value.

But hostages take a lot of work. You have to feed them and keep them healthy — not just from a global pandemic, but also from the risks that one encounters while trekking along mountainsides in North Waziristan. They need to be kept secure or you might wake up to a black helicopter hovering over your roof. You need to engage in dialogue to negotiate for whatever it is you want, or to trade for people or money, and that exposes you to risk.

Sometimes you might feel it is worth it, but sometimes the scales tip in the other direction. This is one of those times. Coronavirus is putting people at risk around the world, regardless of their group, nationality, religion or history. This includes your own people and the person you might be holding.

ADVERTISEMENT

If you are Iran, with one of the largest numbers of COVID-19 cases, you must be worried that an American citizen or dual-national who you have been holding in crowded Evin Prison could be exposed and become just another person in need of scarce medical resources. The medical furlough of Michael White is a good move, but there are still a few others who should be let out while you fight the virus. Venezuela should follow suit, showing concern that the CITGO6 — five U.S. citizens and one permanent resident — could get sick while in your custody. Russia might want to think about a compassionate release for Paul Whelan, lessening the number of people for whom Russia is responsible by one.

Syria, you have been holding Americans Austin Tice and Majd Kamalmaz for years and refusing to admit you have them. Now is your window of opportunity to send them home. You will never have a better opportunity to resolve these cases without the kinds of repercussions you will face when we eventually prove you have been holding them.

If you are the Haqqani Network, you need to start planning for your role in Afghanistan after the U.S. drawdown. Do you really want to worry about keeping Mark Frerichs in custody? Moving a hostage around the border area is hard enough when everyone is healthy, but the risks now are so much higher. You could release him today as a gesture to the future — whether to U.S., Afghan, or Pakistani forces. Your folks could then shift their focus to taking care of themselves, instead of a Western hostage.

If you consider hostage-taking as a business that costs you something but is designed to get you something greater, I’m telling you that the marketplace has shifted below your feet. At the same time that the cost of keeping hostages has increased, the risk to you also has increased. If you thought that you might have a long-term risk, that the U.S. would pursue you for taking a citizen hostage — boy, has that risk gone up. As a former national security professional, I can confidently say that our government will remember who is with us and who is against us at a time of great crisis. 

You have an opportunity to resolve these cases quickly and not be at the top of the “bad list” — but should a U.S. citizen die in your custody during this pandemic, when you could have let them go, I would not want to be on that list when we have an opportunity to refocus our attention.

Your best move is to resolve these cases quickly with the safe release of Americans held abroad. As we all saw from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE’s recent comments about cases in Lebanon and Syria, the U.S. continues to treat hostage release as a priority — even during a global pandemic.

Eric Lebson served as a director at the National Security Council working on Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009-2011. He volunteers to support the families of American hostages held abroad.