To their credit, the families hailed the changes. “We have faith that the changes announced today will lead to increased success in bringing our citizens home,” the Mueller, Kassig, and Sotloff families said in a joint statement. The Foleys, whose son James was killed brutally, praised the review for “shining a spotlight on the silent crisis of American citizens kidnapped abroad.”
The families’ magnanimity is remarkable. In a scathing New Yorker article published the day Obama announced his reforms, Lawrence Wright details the families’ desperate efforts to save their children. With the help of the owner of The Atlantic, David Bradley, the families created a private network of dozens of people to try to locate the hostages and somehow free them.
Instead of aiding those efforts, the government complicated them. Two senior officials in the White House and State Department repeatedly warned the families they could be prosecuted if they paid a ransom. FBI officials, however, assured them they would not be. Other FBI agents, meanwhile, told the families to stop trying to contact intermediaries in the region. All the while, officials across the government shared little information about what the U.S. government was doing to free the hostages.
After Obama’s announcement, critics said the changes were too little too late. They also said Obama should have made it clearer to kidnappers that they would face lethal American retribution. All critics called for greater support for the families, while also demanding that no concessions be made to the hostage-takers. The two goals are contradictory. If a hostage cannot be rescued by force, a ransom is the means to free him or her. In kidnappings, you cannot have it both ways.
More important, the criticisms fail to take into account the mentality of jihadist kidnappers. Based on my experiences and conversations with a half dozen other captives held by jihadists, militants who kidnap foreigners do not conduct cost-benefit analyses before abducting them. In the perverse world of jihadists, they long for death and gain vast, non-monetary benefits from kidnapping a foreigner. Taking an American captive immediately boosts the standing of commanders in jihadist circles. The payment of ransoms by European countries, meanwhile, creates an incentive for jihadists to abduct any foreigner they come across. Europeans can be sources of cash; Americans sources of fame.
With instability spreading across the Middle East, the availability of one of the kidnappers’ most important tools—lawless areas where they can hide captives—is also growing. One reason for optimism in an otherwise dismal landscape of burgeoning global kidnapping involves recent successes in Colombia and the Philippines. In both countries, long-term U.S.-led efforts to properly fund and train local security forces have shrunk the safe havens where hostages can be held.
The changes announced last week in Washington are also a major step forward. The credit for the change goes to the families of the four captives who perished in Syria. Ordinary Americans—three nurses, a doctor, a body-shop owner, a vice president of sales, and a high-school biology teacher—rose above their pain.
Journeying from Arizona, Indiana, Florida, and New Hampshire, they held Washington accountable. They deserve Americans’ admiration, not their pity.
This post appears courtesy of Reuters.