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

by Joel Simon

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Starting in late 2012, Westerners working in Syria -- journalists and aid workers -- began disappearing without a trace. A year later the world learned they had been taken hostage by the Islamic State. Throughout 2014, all the Europeans came home, first the Spanish, then the French, then an Italian, a German, and a Dane. In August 2014, the Islamic State began executing the Americans -- including journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, followed by the British hostages. Joel Simon, who in nearly two decades at the Committee to Protect Journalists has worked on dozens of hostages cases, delves into the heated hostage policy debate. The Europeans paid millions of dollars to a terrorist group to free their hostages. The US and the UK refused to do so, arguing that any ransom would be used to fuel terrorism and would make the crime more attractive, increasing the risk to their citizens. We Want to Negotiate is an exploration of the ethical, legal, and strategic considerations of a bedeviling question: Should governments pay ransom to terrorists?… (more)

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Amazing book about the Kidnap and Ransom insurance industry, government policies around paying ransom, and how to achieve the best outcomes for both individual hostage situations and policies overall. As I've lived/worked in high-kidnap-risk environments, this is interesting to me.

(My solution in war zones was to just spend any money I'd have spent on K&R on more security; I assumed an American kidnapped in Iraq was going to be tortured/murdered, so my plan was to try to drop everyone or go down fighting. Fortunately it never came to that, but I would not have hesitated.
Most of the other American contractors I ever talked with had the same plan; we used low-pro vehicles and such so our insurance/K&R policies were invalidated anyway.)

Overall, the author makes a case that the US/UK policy of "no negotiation, no ransom" is a bad policy, but also that the European policy if paying essentially unlimited ransom (and in the French case, massive publicity before and after release) is also bad. He makes a case for "strategic ambiguity", using private cut-outs to mask government involvement in paying ransom, and taking advantage of the ability of private parties to plead limited resources (which governments can't do), keeping the prices down.

There's long been an argument that paying ransom encourages more kidnapping, but the author makes a credible case that most kidnappings are opportunistic, not made with specific regard to the nationalities of victims. However, higher ransoms do increase kidnapper motivation overall, and some of the nation-state ransoms are so high ($30-50mm!) to actually be a major source of financing for some groups.

My suggestion is some form of this "strategic ambiguity" program combined with guaranteed retribution -- e.g. one American is kidnapped, 10 affiliates of the hostage-taker are taken, and if $10mm in ransom is paid, an extra $100mm bounty is put into a fund for 51% of the bodies of terrorists. Deterrence is one factor, but mainly just a direct "when there are no X terrorists, there will be no kidnappings conducted by X terrorists". Perhaps it would be easier for someone other than a nation-state to conduct this kind of response. ( )
  octal | Jan 1, 2021 |
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Starting in late 2012, Westerners working in Syria -- journalists and aid workers -- began disappearing without a trace. A year later the world learned they had been taken hostage by the Islamic State. Throughout 2014, all the Europeans came home, first the Spanish, then the French, then an Italian, a German, and a Dane. In August 2014, the Islamic State began executing the Americans -- including journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, followed by the British hostages. Joel Simon, who in nearly two decades at the Committee to Protect Journalists has worked on dozens of hostages cases, delves into the heated hostage policy debate. The Europeans paid millions of dollars to a terrorist group to free their hostages. The US and the UK refused to do so, arguing that any ransom would be used to fuel terrorism and would make the crime more attractive, increasing the risk to their citizens. We Want to Negotiate is an exploration of the ethical, legal, and strategic considerations of a bedeviling question: Should governments pay ransom to terrorists?

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