Does the United States Policy of Not Negotiating with Terrorist Kidnappers Work?

The United States has a long-standing (though not necessarily always followed) policy of not negotiating with groups that take Americans hostage. One of the rationales for this policy has been that negotiating with such groups would lead to an increased likelihood of Americans being taken hostage. But is there any evidence this is the case?

A 2017 policy paper from New America suggests that there is little evidence that this policy is effective.

There is no clear link between a nation’s ransom policy and the number of its citizens taken hostage. The United States had the most hostages taken since 2001 with 225, followed by Italy with 148, France with 143, and the United Kingdom with 137. Kidnappings are driven primarily by conditions of general instability in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, rather than by the targeting of particular nationalities. 

Part of the problem in determining whether a “no negotiations” strategy is effective is that the number of Americans kidnapped is (thankfully) so small.

In fact, a 2017 Control Risks look at kidnapping data found that almost all kidnapping around the world targets local nationals rather than foreigners,

Victim types: Kidnappers’ targeting preferences were unaltered in 2017, with local nationals representing 94% of victims. Most kidnappers were deterred from targeting foreigners by the latter’s security measures. However, some experienced groups, lured by the potential for higher ransom payments, retained the intent and capability to abduct them. Kidnappers did not typically choose targets based on their employment sector, but instead on their perception of the victim’s wealth.

New America argues, however, that the “no negotiations” policy has an impact on the outcome of kidnapping events for the hostages–i.e., that it appears to increase the risk that they will remain as hostages longer and are more likely to die as a result of their captivity.

According to a database compiled by New America from public sources, since 2001, American hostages taken captive by terrorist, militant, and pirate groups have been more than twice as likely to remain in captivity, die in captivity, or be murdered by their captors as the average Western hostage. Forty-three percent of American hostages died, remain in captivity, or remain unaccounted for, compared to an average of 19 percent for all Westerners.

A majority of murdered Western hostages are American or British. Of the 90 Western hostages murdered by their captors between 2001 and 2016, 41 (45 percent) were American and 14 (15 percent) were British. The United Kingdom is the only other country examined that strictly adheres to a no-concessions policy.

Hostages from European countries known to pay ransoms are more likely to be released. Hostages from countries such as Austria, France, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland are far more likely to be freed, even when they are held by the terrorist groups that are most likely to murder their hostages. Eighty-one percent of European Union hostages held by jihadist terrorist groups were freed, compared to 25 percent for the United States and 33 percent for the United Kingdom 6

The New America report concludes that the United States should clarify laws about whether private groups who raise ransom for American hostages can be held liable under US laws against funding terrorist organizations; facilitate prisoner exchanges for kidnapped Americans; and perform data-driven studies of hostage taking.

The “no negotiations” policy has an obvious intuitive appeal, but if it is based on outdated or misguided notions that are not supported by the outcomes of actual kidnappings, then it should be abandoned. The sort of data-driven examination of kidnappings that New America recommends would be a good place to start.