US hostage policy doesn’t deter terrorists
Most Americans have no idea who Federico Motka, Marco Marginedas, Patricia Galvez, Frida Saide, Didier Francois, Daniel Rye Ottosen or Nicolas Henin are, but we owe these freed hostages our gratitude. They returned from hell to help convict El Shafee Elsheikh — a member of an especially evil trio of ISIS terrorists dubbed “the Beatles” both for their serial beating of Western hostages and their distinctive British accents. Last Thursday, a jury in federal court found Elsheikh guilty of alleight counts he was charged with. Elsheikh will thus likely spend the rest of his life in prison.
Throughout the trial it was painfully obvious that these former hostages, hailing from European countries that pay ransoms to save their citizens, not only survived their captivity but lived to bear witness. Describing the horrors of their captivity, they also preserved the memories of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, who did not survive. ISIS cruelly murdered these four Americans — along with two Britons, two Japanese and a Russian hostage.
The contrast between those hostages who lived and those who died highlights the inconsistency of America’s longstanding policy on this issue.
Throughout the trial we learned how the terrorists grouped the hostages into those countries that paid ransoms and those who did not. They all suffered terribly; but the Americans and Britons, whose countries do not pay ransoms, were singled out for the worst treatment.
The principle behind America’s “no concessions” hostage policy — that it deters future kidnapping by terrorists of U.S. citizens — was thus revealed as inconsequential. Indeed, the U.S. continues — as it long has — to lead the list of those countries whose citizens overseas are most frequently taken hostage by terrorists — with Britain second.
Testimony in Elsheikh’s trial recounted how “The Beatles” taunted the American hostages after learning of the deal that the U.S. made to release five senior Taliban commanders in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who deserted his post and endured nearly five years of Taliban captivity. “Your families don’t care about you and your government doesn’t care about you,” they sneered, forcing the hostages to sing a perverse rendition of the Eagles’ song “Hotel California.” Their version was renamed “Hotel Osama,” with lyrics that told of how they would never leave Syria alive and were destined to experience the same fate as “Mr. Bigley” — the British national beheaded in Iraq by al Qaeda a year after the U.S. invasion.
Like the American hostages’ families, “The Beatles” were also perplexed that the U.S. would agree to a five-for-one swap with the Taliban but would not negotiate a one-for-one trade with ISIS.
The genesis of the “no concessions” to terrorists hostage policy that the U.S. has claimed to adhere to for more than half a century explains why. According to terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, after two U.S. diplomats were seized by Palestinian terrorists in 1973, Secretary of State William P. Rogers pounded his fist in his other hand and declared that the U.S. required a “masculine policy” to deal with terrorists.
Both diplomats were duly executed.
As appealing as the need to talk tough to terrorists may have been for Rogers and apparently continues to be for his successors, the problem is that U.S. actions have often not conformed to this policy.
The Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration — a straight up “guns for hostages” trade with Iran for its assistance in the release of seven Americans being held by its terrorist client, Hezbollah, in Lebanon is one example. Bergdahl is of course another as is the still unexplained release of American citizen Peter Theo Curtis in 2014 by Jabhat al-Nusra, another jihadi terrorist group active in Syria.
Clearly, no concessions applies to some cases — but not to others. Why and what determines these decisions has never been adequately justified or its rationale publicly explained.
After the poor and muddled treatment accorded by the U.S. government to the parents of the American hostages held by ISIS, President Barack Obama appointed a special envoy for hostages to coordinate the U.S. response as well as a hostage recovery fusion cell bringing together experts in the FBI and State Department among other initiatives.
But apart from creating a new layer of bureaucracy and a more accessible interface between the families of hostages and the U.S. government, little has changed. For instance, families can still be prosecuted in U.S. courts for providing material support to terrorists when they attempt raise funds or crowd source money to pay ransoms to save their loved ones.
Just as the aforementioned seven Americans taken hostage in Lebanon during the 1980s were not the last U.S. citizens to suffer such a fate — including the four American hostages killed by ISIS — and will also not be the last Americans to be taken hostage taken by terrorists.
Indeed, Americans are currently being held captive by terrorists or their state sponsors in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. Among them are Jeff Woodke, who was kidnapped over five years ago and is believed to held by an al Qaeda franchise in the Sahel. In 2020, Mark Frerichs was captured by the Taliban and has yet to be freed despite the extensive negotiations with the Taliban over America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. And, then there is Austin Tice who disappeared in Syria nearly a decade ago and whose fate still is not known.
One hopes that their cases are receiving the urgency and help from the U.S. government that has proven tragically uneven in the past.
Elsheikh’s trial also revealed how ISIS used their videotaped executions of the Americans in particular to recruit foreign fighters to the group. Surely, it is better to deprive terrorists of this heinous, but in ISIS’ case, patently effective recruitment tool — and thereby fulfill the preeminent priority of bringing these captive Americans safely home.
Bruce Hoffman is a professor at Georgetown University and the Shelby Cullom & Katharine W. Davis senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations. Hoffman served as an expert witness called by the government in the El Shafee Elsheikh trial.
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