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.

The Stupidity Embedded in the War on Terror

Fascinating story via TechDirt demonstrating the complete idiocy that characterizes much of the war on terror.

A man in Australia attempted to buy some electronic parts from Element 14, which bills itself as a leading international supplier of electronics. When he showed up at a local Element 14 story to pick up the parts he had ordered online, however, he was told a “hold” had been put on the parts.

The hold, it turned out, was because Element 14 is/was comparing names of customers ordering parts to names on a U.S. terrorism watch list.

The man’s name — David Jones.

Back in 2006 a U.S. Marine was prevented from boarding a flight home because his name — David Brown — was on a watch list. The same year 60 Minutes did a story featuring 12 men named Robert Johnson who were unable to fly because that name is on some sort of watch list.

The watch lists themselves are largely security theater, but it is still a bit shocking to see how the American Terrorism Industrial Complex insists on taking this to its brain dead logic outcome.

Did Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Send the FBI on a Literal Wild Goose Chase?

Interesting quote from an article at Truth Out which apparently also appears in Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer’s book The Hunt for KSM. Discussing the efficacy — or lack thereof — of torture, McDermott notes that one of the claims Khalid Sheikh Mohammed made after being waterboarded sent the FBI on a literal wild goose chase.

“He had us chasing the goddamn geese in Central Park because he said some of them had explosives stuffed up their ass,” former FBI counterterrorism agent, Ali Soufan, told the authors.

It would be nice to have additional sourcing and/or details on such an outlandish undertaking by the FBI.

Homeland Security’s Guide to “Indicators of Suspicious Behavior at Hotels”

In July 2010, the Department of Homeland Security put together a memo documenting suspicious behaviors people engage in at hotels indicating they may be terrorists (PDF of full memo (100k)).

Possible indicators of terrorist behaviors at hotels: The observation of multiple indicators may represent—based on the specific facts or circumstances—possible terrorist behaviors at

  • Not providing professional or personal details on hotel registrations—such as place of employment, contact information, or place of residence.
  • Using payphones for outgoing calls or making front desk requests in person to avoid using the room telephone.
  • Interest in using Internet cafes, despite hotel Internet availability.
  • Non-VIPs who request that their presence at a hotel not be divulged.
  • Extending departure dates one day at a time for prolonged periods.
  • Refusal of housekeeping services for extended periods.
  • Extended stays with little baggage or unpacked luggage.
  • Access or attempted access to areas of the hotel normally restricted to staff.
  • Use of cash for large transactions or a credit card in someone else’s name.
  • Requests for specific rooms, floors, or other locations in the hotel.
  • Use of a third party to register.
  • Multiple visitors or deliveries to one individual or room.
  • Unusual interest in hotel access, including main and alternate entrances, emergency exits, and surrounding routes.
  • Use of entrances and exits that avoid the lobby or other areas with cameras and hotel personnel.
  • Attempting to access restricted parking areas with a vehicle or leaving unattended vehicles near the hotel building.
  • Unusual interest in hotel staff operating procedures, shift changes, closed-circuit TV systems, fire alarms, and security systems.
  • Leaving the property for several days and then returning.
  • Abandoning a room and leaving behind clothing, toiletries, or other items.
  • Noncompliance with other hotel policies.

Thank goodness we’ve got the best and brightest figuring out how to spot terrorists.

The Terrorist’s Favorite Watch

If you harbored any illusions that the United States government is in any way competent at fighting terrorism, you might want to take a look at this Wikipedia page about the favorite watch of terrorists, the Casio F91W.

The Wikipedia list notes that possession of a Casio F91W by a detainee is repeatedly cited in Guantanamo Bay Combatant Status Review Tribunal reports and other government documents. For example, a Summary of Evidence Memo prepared about Abdullah Gulam Rasoul noted,

The detainee was captured with two casio watches of the model that has been used in bombings that have been linked to al Qaida and radical Islamic terrorist improvised explosive devices.

Similarly, in justifying the continued detention of Majid Aydha Muhammad Al Qurayshi, the U.S. government noted that,

The detainee is on a list of detainees with a Casio model F-91W watch. This model watch has been used in bombings that have been linked to al Qaida and radical Islamic terrorist improvised explosive devices.

Of course this might mean something if the F91W wasn’t a cheap watch that retails for about $7.50 in the developing world and is extremely common. I’m surprised the documents don’t cite possession of a Nokia 1100 cell phone while they’re at it.