The Kidnap Game

Col. Bill Cowan
If reports crossing the wires as this is written are correct, the two Italian women being held for the past few weeks in Iraq have been beheaded, as was one of their fellow countrymen last month. Hopefully it’s not so. 

To be sure, the brutal killings and beheadings of foreigners are grim reminders of what we face in Iraq and elsewhere as we battle Islamic fundamentalists. The deaths of Americans Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley in Iraq, together with that of Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia in June, are direct attacks against the United States and our policies in the region.  In contrast, the Italian women were taken captive despite their opposition to the U.S. incursion into Iraq and despite the fact that they were working on projects to help common Iraqis, not shore up any political agendas.  In sum, any and all foreigners in Iraq are at risk.

The statistics are that more than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped there since March 2003.   Most have been freed, but at least 27 have been killed, often by the most gruesome of means.   Just last week, a group of Iraqi National Guardsmen were even taken captive and threatened with death. Luckily for them, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reportedly intervened to win their release. 

The fact is that kidnapping is a tactic which has worked and for which there appears to be an endless number of available victims. In fact, insurgents are well aware that kidnappings may be one of the most promising tactics yet in Iraq, in particular, the taking of truck drivers as hostages. The results of that approach are already obvious; to save one of their own, the Philippines pulled out its small military contingent and promised to stay out of Iraq.  In addition, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Jordanian, and Turkish trucking companies have negotiated the release of some of their drivers by promising to no longer support the overland movement of goods to Coalition forces. Even as this short article is being written, and despite the fact that it’s barely newsworthy any more, other hostages await their fate as their countries or their employers consider the demands of the hostage-takers and weigh the options they have to bring their people home safely. To be sure, this is a tactic that is working.

Of course, it was a suicide bombing which caused the U.N. to withdraw, and ongoing skirmishes; hostilities, bombings and fighting have impaired the ability of the Coalition, relief workers, private contractors, and even the Iraqis themselves to bring stability to the country.  None of these tactics, however, carry the weight of the taking of truck drivers as hostages. The reason is obvious – the reconstruction of Iraq will require the movement of equipment, supplies, and personnel throughout the country. Impairing that movement will impair progress, and without visible and viable progress for all Iraqis to see, overall success will be more difficult and prolonged.

All of the hostages currently being held, from truck drivers to foreigners, were taken because they were low-risk targets. The two Americans and Brit who were taken seemed to have been lulled into a false sense of security brought about by staying in a neighborhood, which had an aura of security. The Italian women quite possibly felt relatively safe because they were simply helping common Iraqis, and the two French journalists whose immediate fate is uncertain likely felt safe simply because they were journalists.

The bottom line is that kidnappings will continue, with each one having an impact on families, loved ones, governments, and, in some cases, policies. How then do we deal with it? The answer is that contractors, organizations, and individuals going to the region in search of good wages or personal satisfaction at helping others need to recognize the threat and be willing to invest in the security necessary to safeguard themselves, their facilities, and their operations.  Dropping one’s guard for even one moment, for whatever reason, can be disastrous.  In the world of security, you get what you pay for.  And when you’re not willing to make the right investment in it, a momentary lapse can lead to a disastrous outcome.  The insurgents know it.  So too, unfortunately, do those who have been taken.

Bill Cowan is a FOX News Channel contibutor and internationally acknowledged expert in the areas of terrorism, homeland security, intelligence and military special operations.