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Should America Negotiate with Terrorists? An Interview with Joel Simon

Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, discusses his new book, We Want to Negotiate, which argues for sweeping changes to the way the US responds to hostage-taking.

We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages, and Ransom
Joel Simon

Columbia Global Reports

Jan 2019


America's refusal to negotiate with terrorists has assumed iconic status, reasserted by US presidents from Nixon to Obama. It's deeply entrenched in popular consciousness, with no shortage of popular movies and television shows set within its policy framework.

But does it make sense? Is it effective in its stated goals of deterring and hobbling terrorist organizations? Or is it just macho posturing, an empty slogan whose only certain result is that it gets Americans killed?

It's a question that Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), has struggled with, and which he explores in his newest study We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom.

It's an important subject for someone in his line of work. His organization keeps tabs on missing, killed, and imprisoned journalists around the world and conducts advocacy on their behalf and in support of press freedom. Kidnapping is, he explains, an occupational hazard for journalists.

"If you are a journalist you're going to be working in some pretty rough spots where there are criminal groups or militant groups, and often you have to engage with them and talk to them, so you're vulnerable. You can't really do your job as a journalist if you're always running around with security. So it's unfortunately a risk that journalists confront. But I'd never seen anything like what's happened in Syria starting in late 2012."

He elaborates on this in his previous book The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom (interview, 13 Apr 2015). There's been a shift in recent years: no longer are journalists the only interlocutors of militants and terror groups, which previously had to accept the fact that journalists provided balanced and objective reporting of their actions as the price to be paid for achieving public awareness of their existence and aims. Now, thanks to the Internet and social media, terror groups and other criminals can share their own carefully crafted identities and messages with the world, without needing journalists. Consequently, journalists have become targets – subject to kidnapping and murder in the conflict zones they try to report from.

One such journalist was James Foley, an American journalist who was abducted in Syria by ISIL in 2012 and murdered in 2014.

Water drop by qimono (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Simon was approached during their ordeal by the Foley family, who were disappointed and felt they weren't getting the support that they needed from the US government. They felt they were left with no other option but to try and negotiate something on their own, Simon explains (the title of his book – We Want to Negotiate – was drawn from the ransom note the family received). During his conversations with Foley's mother Diane, he expressed concern not only about CPJ facing legal liability if it was involved in an effort to help pay ransom to terrorists, but also about the possibility this could encourage more kidnapping of journalists—one of the principles on which the no concessions policy is based.

"...[Diane Foley] said 'Well that's logical, but how do you know that to be true? How do you know that that assumption is correct?'"

Simon realized she had an important point: did the evidence actually back up no concessions as a deterrent? The realization led him to investigate the no concessions framework, as well as alternatives practised elsewhere.

He explores this research in We Want to Negotiate, and what he finds reveals the complexity of the issue. While the US has no concession allies (particularly the UK), several of its European allies and other countries around the world do negotiate with terrorists -- and get their citizens home safely. Not in all cases, but more frequently than the US and UK. Furthermore, the majority of empirical studies show that a no concessions policy has no deterrent effect on terrorist hostage-taking. Kidnapping is a crime of opportunity -- people are in the wrong place at the wrong time -- and terrorists rarely bother to determine someone's nationality before snatching them. It's only afterward that nationality becomes an issue, in terms of the response of the citizen's home country. If a ransom is negotiated, the hostage might eventually go free. If it's not, their murder is often used in promotional videos by the terrorist group. In either case, the terrorist organization gets something out of it. For the hostage, their country's position on hostage-taking becomes a matter of life or death.

What's more, Simon observes, it's not even accurate that America doesn't negotiate. In many cases, it does. When American military personnel are taken hostage, the US will negotiate with terror groups for their release. When Americans are taken hostage by criminal organizations – many of which act no different than designated terror groups – US agencies will sometimes support efforts to negotiate and pay ransom. It's the incoherence of this hodge-podge of conflicting slogans, policies and actions that draws criticism, Simon explains.

"It's something of a political slogan," he says. "It sounds good, and it sounds tough, but… we do negotiate. If an American is unjustly imprisoned by a rogue government -- even one that we consider to be supporting terrorism around the world, like Iran -- we will negotiate. If you are a member of the armed forces and you're taken captive by a militant group like Bo Bergdahl was in Afghanistan, taken by the Taliban, we will negotiate. If the same group takes a journalist, we won't negotiate, because we don't negotiate with terrorists. We will negotiate if it's a member of the military. If you're kidnapped domestically, it's a fairly rare crime, but at least from a legal standpoint we will negotiate."

"So it really only applies in relatively limited circumstances when an American is taken hostage by a designated terrorist organization. I should point out that the American government and the FBI will support negotiations carried out by the family if you are kidnapped by a criminal organization including, for example, the Mexican drug cartels, which sort of act like terrorist groups."

Negotiating with Terrorists

Why are other countries – Spain, France, Italy, and several more -- willing to negotiate?

"In other parts of the world they've done the political math, and that slogan – 'we won't negotiate' – really doesn't resonate, because the expectations of the voters… is that governments have an obligation and a responsibility to bring their people home," Simon says. "So they do the political math differently and come to a different answer. Many countries in continental Europe will negotiate, and while they never admit it publicly, they will pay ransom. There's a debate in some countries, but it's not particularly controversial in others."

In some countries, such as France, some prominent activists – including journalist and former hostage Florence Aubenas – even argue that talking to terrorists is the responsibility of a democratic nation. It's a reflection, they argue, of democratic principles, such as talking to your enemies and demonstrating that the life of every citizen is valuable. France is unique, Simon notes, in that hostages become a cause célèbre, with the formation of public support committees and large-scale rallies and protests calling on the government to negotiate their release.

What's truly interesting is that the tough-guy, no concessions bravado of American policy has such wide purchase in the US, while citizens of other countries respond in the opposite way, often demanding that their governments do whatever it takes to bring hostages home, including paying ransom. Simon suggests it may have to do with the way the US projects its military power abroad.

"It's a really interesting insight into the way the US conducts military power globally and perceives its strategic interests," says Simon. "We have strategic interests in many parts of the world – security interests – and we have military capabilities sometimes actively deployed. We're engaged in conflict, and so Americans don't want to be perceived as being coerced by the kidnapping of their nationals. Whereas other European powers are not projecting military power in the same way and don't have the same perceived strategic interests, so it's a lot easier for them to compromise. And the expectation is that the responsibility of the government is to keep citizens of that country safe and bring them home. Whereas the responsibility of the American government is perceived by many people in this country as being to protect us from the quote unquote 'terror threat'. So it's really just filtered through a different political framework and the way we perceive our strategic interests."

Tough-guy posturing aside, the logic of the no concessions policy is based on the argument that it serves as an effective deterrent against hostage-taking, discouraging terrorists from deploying their time, effort and resources to kidnap Americans. But Simon reviews the evidence in his book and discovers the majority of studies indicate that a no concessions policy does not deter hostage-taking.

"The reality is that when you actually dig down and you look at the evidence of whether this policy is effective, it really doesn't produce the best outcomes," he says.

"My view -- at least based on the evidence that I've looked at – is it really doesn't necessarily make us safer as a result. There's been some studies, and this goes back to the creation of the policy in the 1970s, which really suggests that kidnapping is much more of an opportunistic crime. In other words the groups which carry out this kidnapping are really just grabbing whatever westerners they see. They're not checking passports. And there already is a market, because families will pay, and businesses will pay, and some governments will pay.

It's almost impossible to wipe out that market. Once the market exists, it doesn't really matter how the individual country responds. Because the kidnappers are just grabbing whoever they can. And so the Europeans, the ones that pay, have a very, very high rate of recovery. The Spanish, for example, have recovered all of their hostages. The Americans -- if you are kidnapped by a terrorist organization your chance of survival is about 25 percent. So 75 percent of Americans are killed. That's the cost of this no concessions policy. And so if the cost is being paid in American lives, it damn well better make us safer, because that's a pretty big sacrifice. The evidence to suggest that it does simply isn't there."

The Insurance Industry Response

One of the confusing aspects of the no concessions policy is that it only applies to designated terror groups, those specifically listed as such by the US government. Meanwhile, ransoms are routinely paid to other hostage-takers, such as drug cartels and criminal gangs. There's even now a growing market for 'kidnap and ransom' policies offered by insurance companies. Simon explores this little-known industry in his book. It's a private-sector response to the ubiquity of hostage-taking in some parts of the world, and used by larger corporations and wealthy individuals. For obvious reasons companies don't advertise if they have such a policy, but where it exists it offers reimbursement for ransoms paid to kidnappers. It also provides the services of a professional negotiator, which is key to keeping 'market price' for ransoms as low as possible.

Simon expresses a favourable opinion of this private sector response, which has proven statistically successful. Of course, the problem is that terror groups don't understand why ransoms will be paid in some circumstances, and not others. He feels the distinction that is drawn by designating certain organizations as 'terror groups' to which ransom cannot be paid, is not a helpful or constructive distinction.

"It strikes people as arbitrary. I give the example of the Mexican drug cartels -- kidnapping is one of the strategies that they use. And they behave like terrorist groups. They're doing public executions and videotaping violence and terrorizing whole communities and controlling physical territory in some parts of Mexico, so they're really behaving like terror groups. But they're not a designated terrorist organization, so under US law it is perfectly legal to pay them ransom, and the FBI will support American families who choose to pay ransom to ensure that they're not defrauded. In some cases they will even deliver the ransom. But if you are kidnapped by a designated terrorist group, then a completely different protocol applies.

"Even the groups that engage in this kidnapping, they don't understand the distinction, it doesn't really make sense to them either. When Americans say 'Well we won't negotiate with you, but we will negotiate… with a drug cartel,' you know that makes no sense."

Kidnap and ransom insurance policies have had to adapt to the legal distinction: the policies become invalid if ransom is paid to a designated terror organization. The situation is further obfuscated by the murky links which sometimes exist between criminal and terror groups.

Revisiting US Policy

The United Kingdom – another no concessions country – has led efforts internationally to pressure other countries to adopt a no concessions position. But it's not working, says Simon.

"The logic here, which is indisputable, is that if no one ever paid then there'd be no incentive for the crime. Right? Which is undoubtedly true, and so that's why the US and the UK sought to create a global no concessions framework. They were basically saying look, the Europeans are paying, money is going into the hands of these terrorist groups, we've got to cut off that financing, we've got to make this crime less attractive, and the only way to do it is to make everyone agree not to pay. And of course the European governments would publicly agree, because what else are they going to say? Officially their policy is that they don't pay.

"But the political reality is that they're going to pay. They have to pay, because that's what the public demands. And of course families will pay, and businesses will pay, and so the market exists. It's impossible to wipe it out. One expert said to me, 'Well yes, armed robbery wouldn't be a crime if you made it illegal for people to give muggers your wallet, right?' But that's just not going to work. It's not practical.

"The notion that you can wipe out kidnapping by creating a global no concessions framework in which no one ever pays is a pipe dream. It's not going to work, and so we need to think about other strategies that achieve the legitimate outcomes that governments seek, which is: one, the recovery of their nationals; two, that they achieve that result without making it more dangerous for other people in terms of increasing the amount of kidnapping; and three, minimize the amount of money going to terror organizations for whom kidnapping has become a significant source of financing. It's counter-intuitive, but the reality is that the no concessions framework doesn't really achieve those outcomes. And so that's why I think that it's time to rethink."

For countries that don't adhere to Anglo-American no concessions policies, it rarely transpires that the government negotiates directly. What it means is that the government provides a strong support network for the hostage and their family. Dealing with a hostage-taking requires more than just money: it requires emotional and psychological support; strategic planning; knowledge of the group and the area involved in the hostage-taking; intelligence-gathering; communications specialists (to help in communicating with the hostage-takers, the media and the public); and more.

A big problem with no concessions countries like the US, Simon observes, is their failure to develop any infrastructure to deal with hostage-taking at all. In America until recently, when a hostage was taken, the families were essentially on their own. This contrasts with European countries like Spain, where centralized and well-coordinated units comprising government and military personnel are able to share their experience and knowledge to coordinate support for the family and try to get the hostage home safely. Simon contrasts this with the experience of families like the Foleys in the US.

"They just felt abandoned by the government, they didn't have the support that they anticipated and expected, there was a real lack of coordination, I would argue a lack of compassion, even a lack of humanity in some instances for their plight."

What's needed is a nuanced approach that's open to differing responses based on the particularities of the situation, Simon argues. A simple, blanket no concessions policy is a bad policy: it helps no one, all but ensures the death of hostages, and doesn't seem to deter terrorists either.

Working for Change

There has been a growing acknowledgement by US policy-makers that something needs to change in how they respond to hostage-taking. The lack of a coherent policy, the contradictory responses, and the fact little to no support has been provided to American families struggling to deal with the kidnapping of their loved ones has sparked outrage from families of kidnap victims and fueled a policy review toward the end of the Obama presidency. Obama, notes Simon, was a firm adherent of the no concessions policy, and said from the outset of the policy review that the no concessions position was not up for debate. However, the review did lead to some procedural changes – commitment to greater support for families, and stronger coordination between various government agencies in the context of hostage-taking.

Simon, and others, feel that's not enough. He's quick to point out that it's not just journalists who are at risk – aid workers, business people, and others are all affected by hostage-taking. Diane Foley, mother of murdered journalist James Foley, established the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation and it, along with other organizations such as the New America Foundation, are involved in conducting research and pushing for an open, informed policy discussion.

Simon feels that an important first step is to put aside the posturing of the no concessions position.

"Think about it: if you're a family, and your family member's kidnapped, if your opening gambit is going to be: 'Well we won't negotiate and we're certainly not going to pay,' you know that would be a terrible opening strategy! Because even if you have no intention of paying, there's no benefit in announcing it because the only thing that the hostage-takers and the person trying to recover them have in common is that the hostage is valuable only so long as they're alive. So you want to keep them alive, and the way you keep them alive is by both sides being convinced that they have value. If you undermine that value, then they have no incentive for keeping them alive.

"The negotiations themselves can lead to intelligence that could potentially make a rescue possible, although the data on rescues is that most of the time somebody gets killed, so they're not a great option, they have to be a last resort. It may open up the possibility that you could prosecute or somehow bring to justice those responsible for these crimes. [While] recognizing how difficult that is in an international context, it still should always be the goal."

What does Simon consider to be the basis for an informed policy on hostage-taking?

"I really argue for: number one, full support for the families, because they have nowhere else to turn, they need the government to respond and engage. And then maximum flexibility: looking at a case by case scenario, looking for creative ways of supporting them. One thing I do mention is that every family who's in this situation should have access to a private negotiator, an expert, whether they have kidnapping and ransom insurance or not. The government should find a way to provide that, and it should where possible support the efforts of the family to recover hostages."

Simon also suggests there could be national security arguments for recovering hostages. In recent years terror groups have utilized social media and technology to produce horrific and unprecedented execution videos, and those videos reap immense propagandistic and political value for the groups. Preventing the highly staged executions, even if it means paying ransom, may have stronger benefits from a national security perspective than the current policy.

An open-minded discussion, acknowledging the reality that countries negotiate with terrorists and pay ransom, could also improve international responses. For countries that negotiate, there could be best practices. The hodge-podge of differing international responses, coupled with the fact that most countries keep their practices and experiences secret (this has been exacerbated by vociferous Anglo-American lobbying to spread their no concessions position) means that the uninformed policy of one country can have repercussions on the hostage experience of another. Countries which freely pay large ransoms inflate the market, so to speak, creating expectations that cannot be met by other countries or families. That doesn't mean they shouldn't pay ransom to save lives -- but that there needs to be better coordination in order to try to maintain some best practices.

While Simon acknowledges that it's unlikely for any structured policy review to happen during the Trump presidency, he's hopeful that broadening the dialogue around the subject will lead to future opportunities for policy review. And he's been impressed by the public response he's witnessed so far.

"I was surprised, as I've toured the book around the country -- I've done lots of media and I've spoken at lots of foreign policy councils in different cities -- and the discussion has been very thoughtful. I thought it would be such an emotional issue for people. But I think people get that there are trade-offs here -- that lives are at stake, the families are in an impossible situation, and they can imagine themselves in that position. Nobody wants money going to these terrible groups, but I think they understand that they want flexibility. They want the government to do everything it can to support families, to bring people home. They understand there are national security dimensions, but I think we need a more flexible approach. And I do think there's an appetite now to have that conversation."

Ultimately, experts repeatedly affirm, the only way to end terrorist-related hostage-taking is to end the conflict that gives rise to it, either through dialogue or military action. From the text:

"[K]idnapping and hostage-taking is a tactic of war and cannot be eliminated," writes Simon in the conclusion to his book. "Trying to end kidnapping by blocking the payment of ransom is like trying to wipe out car bombing by banning the sale of gasoline."
The only way to end political kidnapping, he continues, "is to neutralize the groups that are carrying it out. This can be done through political settlements, as occurred in Colombia and Lebanon; by expanding security, as was done in response to Somali piracy; or by military means, as occurred with Sendero Luminoso in Peru. But it's always a long process."

So long as a conflict exists, hostage-taking will in all likelihood continue to exist, and that will require an informed, policy-driven and humanistic response. What that response will be, is what Simon and others are hoping to open up for informed discussion.

"I absolutely think that the whole top to bottom thinking about this needs to be on the table," he says. "Right now we're really constrained by the policy. There needs to be greater flexibility."

"It really just creates an absolutely impossible, untenable situation for American families who are victimized in this way."

Photo of Joel Simon ©Rebecca Greenfield (courtesy of Columbia Global Reports)

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