The safety of Americans abroad is a top priority for the U.S. government. Whether working in a U.S. embassy or on an aid mission, all American lives are valued. When these lives are taken hostage by terrorists, their rescue becomes extremely complex.
Chris Voss, CEO and founder of the Black Swan Group, said kidnappings of American hostages makes him angry.
“[It’s] a horrifying experience from our perspective, but for them it’s a means to an end. Usually they want to trade for money, for weapons, for political favors, or for publicity,” Voss said.
The Black Swan Group prepares its clients to handle the unpredictable. Voss has 24 years of FBI experience and was their lead international kidnapping negotiator.
He said that he has been involved with about 150 successful rescuing cases worldwide, some involving children, in countries like Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
In 2011, al-Qaida militants in Pakistan kidnapped an American named Warren Weinstein. He was accidently killed by a U.S. drone in January.
During his captivity the White House said it would not negotiate with terrorists for his release.
Elaine Weinstein released a statement after learning about her husband’s fatality: “We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families.”
A bipartisan amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, headed by Democratic Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and California Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican, called for the creation of a “hostage czar.” Weinstein was Rep. Delaney’s constituent.
The legislation, approved by the House of Representatives, includes an Interagency Hostage Recovery Coordinator. Some of the coordinator’s tasks would include engaging in rescue missions alongside all levels of the federal government and keeping families up-to-date with hostage-related developments.
The amendment, however, does not permit negotiations with terrorists.
Voss said he has not negotiated with terrorists in his career, but rather has been involved with “third-party intermediaries” or “proxies.”
Journalists like James Foley and Steve Sotloff, who were kidnapped and then killed by Islamic State militants, led many to question whether government bodies should negotiate with terrorists to secure the release of hostages.
If government agencies were to interact with terror groups, would their arrangements be honored? Would the terrorists demand more? Would everyday people be encouraged to kidnap Americans, knowing they could engage in extortion?
According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, about $165 million has been paid to terror organizations in the form of ransom money, primarily funded by European governments.
The U.S. government has secretly negotiated with terrorists, but not through publicized monetary means. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was kidnapped for five years by Taliban sympathizers in Afghanistan, was swapped for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Trading prisoners of war is not unique to the United States. In 2006, Israel Defense Forces solider Gilad Shalit, held captive by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas for five years, was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
Originally published on the Medill National Security website