January 24, 2022
IntelBrief: The U.S. Must Prioritize the Recovery of Americans Held Hostage and Unlawfully Detained Abroad
In recent years, there has been a significant shift in global hostage-taking against United States nationals. Today, state actors have surpassed non-state actors as the leading entities holding American citizens abroad. This shift is notable in the implications it will have for the U.S., regarding both the implementation of its national hostage recovery activities as well as in how the U.S. and its citizens will seek to navigate an evolving geopolitical landscape where state actors increasingly use American citizens as political pawns. No matter the shifts in global hostage-taking patterns, the U.S. must be steadfast in a response that prioritizes hostage negotiations and the safe return of all Americans held hostage or unlawfully detained abroad.
For decades, the U.S. has dealt with the complex crime of hostage-taking against its citizens by a diverse and evolving host of perpetrators. Hostage-taking is a common practice among non-state actors, with terrorist organizations, militia groups, and criminal actors well-known for carrying out these activities. For terrorist organizations especially, a U.S. hostage can offer significant propaganda value while the group also attempts to extract monetary or political concessions from the government. In turn, ransoms paid to terrorist groups fund their illicit activities. Groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines have long relied on kidnapping for ransom (KFR) as a lucrative funding stream. The practice of hostage-taking is also increasingly used by state actors, with foreign governments now unlawfully detaining a growing number of Americans abroad, according to data from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation.
Over 2014 and into early 2015, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) murdered four American citizens. The group was also responsible for the murder and detention of other Western hostages, along with a host of other crimes against civilians in Iraq and Syria. The brutal killings of the American hostages, coupled with public frustrations voiced by American hostage families about the management of their cases and their treatment by the government, triggered a raft of measures to enhance the U.S. response to global hostage-taking. In 2015, and following a comprehensive review of U.S. hostage policy, Presidential Policy Directive-30 (PPD-30) established the current U.S. hostage recovery enterprise to promote consistent implementation of policies, enhance interagency coordination, and improve family engagement. The policy included the establishment the National Security Council’s Hostage Response Group (HRG), the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell (HRFC), and the appointment of a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), among other measures. In 2020, the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage Taking Accountability Act codified PPD-30 into law.
These measures have been described by hostage recovery advocates as “durable and effective,” improving areas like information sharing, interagency coordination, centralized communication, and family support. Still, families have expressed concern about the gaps that remain and, above all, the U.S. government’s willingness to prioritize the issue. The true measure of success will be the results borne by these efforts; the safe and swift return of all Americans held hostage and unlawfully detained abroad. For years, U.S. hostage families have been the champions pushing for reform, pushing for accountability, pushing for results for their loved ones. As the landscape shifts, and as state actors assume the role of lead hostage-takers of Americans, the U.S. government must prioritize the issue at home and work with allies abroad for an international consensus that is resolute in the face of this violation of human rights and dignity.