A former FBI hostage negotiator who dealt with Islamist terrorists holding Americans for ransom said President Obama’s new strategy for handling such cases is a “step in the right direction” that clears the way for families and the government to work more closely together to free kidnapped citizens.
Earlier this week, President Obama tweaked the U.S. policy so that, while America still will not officially pay ransom for captured citizens, it will not prosecute families who do. The U.S. had never done so, but the threat left many families of hostages hamstrung as their loved ones begged for help in hostage videos.
“Removing the threat of prosecution of families whose loved ones are under the threat of death of kidnappers is the morally correct thing to do,” Chris Voss, former lead FBI international hostage negotiator, told FoxNews.com. “It also tactically recognizes the fact that they are victims of an ongoing extortion as well and should be aided as opposed to threatened.”
“Removing the threat of prosecution of families whose loved ones are under the threat of death of kidnappers is the morally correct thing to do.”
- Chris Voss, former lead FBI international hostage negotiator
The new policy would allow the U.S. government to facilitate communications between families and hostage takers, but would still prohibit Washington from paying ransoms. Families, who terrorist groups have frequently contacted directly, would be able to raise money to pay ransoms without fear of prosecution.
However, paying ransom isn’t the only way families can take part in the process to free loved ones, with the help of their government. Ten days after Jill Carroll was grabbed by masked gunmen in Baghdad on Jan. 7, 2006, Al-Jazeera broadcast a silent, 20-second proof of life video showing Carroll and giving the United States 72 hours to free all women held in Iraqi prisons.
For 82 days, Carroll’s fate was in the hands of the self-styled militant group “Brigades of Vengeance,” while her family and officials carefully constructed a plan to bring her home. Voss, working on behalf of the U.S., assessed the situation as “high threat with an unattainable demand,” meaning the kidnappers were asking for the impossible.
Jill’s father was enlisted to tape a video message to be aired on Arab news networks, in which he spoke directly to the kidnappers. He pointed out that his daughter did not “have the power to free anyone” and urged her captors to use her as a reporter to support their cause.
According to Voss, the captors were impressed by Jim Carroll’s message.
“They saw him as an honorable man,” Voss recalled. “After that, their approach went from threatening to much softer.”
Beyond establishing that Jill’s father was a man of honor, Voss also made use of Iraqi cultural customs to point out that the kidnappers were in violation of their own rules. The militants had "dishonored" their captive in the proof of life video by not covering her head. In the second video, Carroll was wearing a headscarf. They also brought up that she was a guest in their country, and in much of the Middle East, hospitality is of paramount importance.
On March 30, Carroll was freed. She was one of the lucky ones.
Over the past 10 months, four Americans – journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller – have been murdered by ISIS.
The State Department has identified at least 72 U.S citizens kidnapped by international terrorists between 2005 and 2013 alone, although actual numbers may be higher. Some have been freed, some have been killed and the fate of still others remains unclear. U.S. Marine-turned-freelance-journalist Austin Tice has been missing in Syria for nearly three years, while the abductors of construction worker Jeffrey Ake, who was snatched in Iraq in 2005, have not been heard from in years.
Like Carroll’s captives, ISIS has chosen the media as its primary means of communication – broadcasting choreographed videos featuring their helpless foreign captives. Voss, who now runs business negotiating firm The Black Swan Group, said that the U.S. government is generally failing to use the media as a valuable tool.
Although Shirley Sotloff’s polite video appeal to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi last August wasn’t enough to save her son’s life, it did bring about a response, in the form of a letter from Steven Sotloff to his mom published by the terror group’s propaganda magazine Dabiq. Keeping the abductors engaged is critical, he said.
“A plea plus response equals a dialogue,” Voss said. “You just need someone experienced enough to see it and then see how to leverage is. There is always leverage.”
Now that families won’t face potential penalties for using their own funds to try to liberate loved ones, the U.S. can play an official role in helping arrange payment as well as facilitating talks.
Dan O’Shea, the former coordinator of the Hostage Working Group at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004-2006, said that a crucial task of a negotiator is still to swiftly minimize the captors’ price.
“Kidnappers will determine the amount of money they want based on one’s nationality, job and status,” he said, adding that another vital component is that, even though the clock is ticking, one should never immediately agree to pay the initial requested ransom payment, as that typically encourages the hostage takers to demand more.
He recalled various examples from the Iraq war in which Iraqis promptly paid ransoms to bring back their relatives, inspiring the kidnappers to then abduct other family members, increasing both the emotional and financial tolls.
In one case, a 21-year-old Iraqi college student named Sumaya – who was working as an interpreter at the U.S. Embassy – was thrust into the position of trying to win her younger brother’s freedom. The kidnappers portrayed themselves as Al Qaeda, although it quickly became apparent that they were merely local criminals after money. Sumaya’s brother was eventually let go after a ransom fee, a fraction of the initial exorbitant demand, was agreed upon.
One Pentagon-based military strategist who requested anonymity said the new policy doesn’t go far enough, saying the government should consider paying ransom, too. The strategist insisted that Europeans from nations whose governments – despite public posture to the contrary – pay ransoms almost always have a better chance at survival. For example, in April, four French journalists were set free after months in ISIS captivity after their government reportedly dished out $18 million.
But while paying ransom can be an effective way of freeing hostages, the reason underlying the United States’ longstanding refusal remains – it encourages kidnapping by making it profitable. And the fact that Al Qaeda has specifically targeted French, Austrian, Spanish and Swiss hostages in recent years may show terrorists have figured out which governments will do business.
Government involvement in hostage talks, even under the no-pay policy, can be perilous, as was demonstrated by last year’s trade of five Guantanamo Bay detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The swap drew harsh criticism for freeing terror suspect to return to the battlefield, but also may have made matters worse for families of other hostages.
The parents of Mueller, who was held hostage in Syria for 18 months before being killed earlier this year, were in talks with their daughter’s captors when the trade happened. They later told NBC’s “Today” show that the Bergdahl deal prompted ISIS – which initially sought $6.2 million – to demand more.
“That (deal) made the whole situation worse,” Kayla Mueller’s brother, Eric, said. “Because that’s when the demands got greater. They got larger. They realized they had something. They realized that, ‘Well, if they’re gonna let five people go for one person, why don’t they do this? Or why don’t they do that?’”
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay