Countries that refuse to engage with hostage takers have not managed to reduce kidnappings any more successfully than countries that negotiate with kidnappers, an international expert on counter-terrorism said on Monday.
Speaking to The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the International Institute for Counter-terrorism’s conference “Terrorism’s Global Impact” in IDC Herzliya, Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation think tank, said that his research has shown that, contrary to popular perception, countries’ policies regarding hostage takers have little impact on a given group’s decision to continue kidnapping.
Countries generally either follow a “no concessions” policy which disallows the payment of ransom and the exchange of prisoners, or a “safe release” policy which aims for the safe return of the hostage. Some countries employ flexible policies, depending on the circumstances of the case.
“If you look at the application of those policies and look at the absence or occurrence of further hostage situations involving those countries, there’s no correlation,” he said. “The evidence supporting the assumption that a ‘no concessions’ policy is an effective deterrent is meager and unconvincing.”
The most effective way of curtailing terrorist kidnappings is the destruction of the terror organizations that carry them out, said Jenkins, who served as a an adviser to the National Commission on Terrorism since 1999 and as a member of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security under president Bill Clinton.
According to Jenkins, however, there are “very sound reasons” for states to refuse to deal with terrorists’ demands, a policy adopted by the US since the kidnapping and murder of US ambassador to Sudan Cleo Noel and deputy chief of mission George Curtis Moore by the Palestinian terror group Black September in March 1973.
Ransom money is known to fund further terror activities. In the case of James Foley, an American journalist kidnapped and executed in late August, the Islamic State demanded $130 million for his release.
“That’s the equivalent of several hundred thousand AK-47s at black market prices. It’s more than 200 times what it cost al-Qaeda to carry out the 9/11 operation.”
Another dilemma countries face is whether to release prisoners in exchange for a hostage held by terrorists. In the US, where most of the security prisoners have been tried and convicted in a court, the notion of their premature release is considered an affront to the rule of law.
“The idea that we’ll overturn our judicial system in order to release convicted criminals is very, very difficult for us to do.”
Terrorists take hostages for a variety of reasons, Jenkins continued, and can achieve their objectives even if the country targeted does not yield to their demands.
“Terrorists take hostages in order to attract attention to themselves and create publicity,” he said. In the case of James Foley, the grisly beheading — carefully recorded — gave the Islamic State more attention than they would have received through negotiations.
“They wanted that attention, so the operation was a success to them.”
Kidnappings also aim to cause governmental crises. Many believe that president Jimmy Carter’s failure to secure the release of 52 American hostages captured in the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 contributed to his political defeat a year later, Jenkins said. The political crisis experienced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due to the protracted captivity of Corporal Gilad Shalit explains the high price his government was eventually willing to pay in enemy prisoners.
“Terrorists can achieve their goals whether or not their demands are met,” he said.
On June 8, the Israeli cabinet approved a draft bill proposed by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett limiting the president’s ability to pardon prisoners sentenced to life. The bill, Bennett, said, would allow judges to state in their rulings that a convicted murderer will not be eligible for release, thereby eliminating the government’s ability to trade these prisoners for an Israeli hostage.
Jenkins said he objected to legislation that ties the hands of government when dealing with terrorism.
“The idea of legislation to me simply doesn’t fit,” he said. “Policy is a guideline. Can one envision circumstances in which we might creatively depart from this policy? The answer is yes.”
Hostage release is as delicate and dynamic a process as a battle in the field, he opined. Just as you wouldn’t legislate the number of troops a government is allowed to send to war, setting the number of prisoners a government may release in return for a hostage is unwise.
“You can argue: OK, 1,027 [Palestinian prisoners released for Shalit] was too many. So what will the legislation say? Will it be 935? 206? 14? Who in the Knesset will determine the right number to resolve a national crisis?” he wondered.
The case of Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan in June 2009 and released in May 2014 in return for five Taliban members is entirely different from the civilian hostage debate, Jenkins said. The US applies a different set of rules when the kidnapped person is a member of the military captured during armed conflict.
“We send young men and women into combat knowing that they may be killed or captured. It is our bond to them, and essential to their morale, that we say that, if taken prisoner, we will do whatever we can to get them back. We sent them there, it is our duty to get them back.”
Exchanges of prisoners during armed conflict, he continued, is a tradition that goes back thousands of years. “If terrorists were to kidnap an American soldier and demand $200 million dollars, we would not make a deal,” he said.
“But in this case [of Bergdahl] we were in a state of hostilities with the Taliban. These were Taliban prisoners who were taken during the course of these hostilities. They were held as enemy combatants and convicted of no crimes in the US. They were not subject to any military tribunal … this was criticized and confused with the policy on terrorism which has nothing to do with it.”