For decades, being an American abroad carried unspoken protections in countries that either respected or feared the United States. But a shift in who is abducting U.S. nationals reflects a weakened regard for both the United States and the international system it operates in. New tools — and commitments from the White House — are needed to protect innocent people targeted as they live, work and travel overseas.
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Foreign governments now surpass terrorist and militant groups as the predominant hostage-takers of U.S. nationals around the globe. Nineteen publicly known U.S. nationals are being held by militants and other criminal groups, while at least 43 are being wrongfully detained abroad as state-sponsored hostage cases, according to Cynthia Loertscher, research director at the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which works closely with the State Department on hostage issues. The rise in foreign governments wrongfully detaining Americans to extract concessions, policy changes or prisoner exchanges from the United States is dramatic:
Interactive graphic: Number of known U.S. nationals held by governments and terrorist groups
Although American hostages are more likely to be killed by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, they are held longer when detained by foreign governments. But lethality and long sentences alone are not a measure of the cost of these crimes.
“The concern is that we’ll see elements of some governments using this as a routine way of doing business, and that it will increasingly become a form of commerce,” says Brian Michael Jenkins, a Rand Corp. senior adviser who has tracked hostage issues for decades and wrote a manual on the subject for the Nixon administration. “Wrongful detentions — while these are routinely increasing in diplomacy — they can’t be normalized. To contain it requires a degree of international cooperation and a consensus.”
Experts say China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela are currently the most active hostage-taking states. Just last month, Venezuela retaliated against the United States for its extradition of a Maduro ally by re-imprisoning six U.S. oil executives who had been under house arrest. They have been held captive since 2017. Russia, like allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, practices hostage diplomacy, too.
Ben Rhodes, who was deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, says this growing threat cannot be ignored.
“The reason to take this seriously is in part because, yes, there are individual lives at stake here, but it’s also something that is reaching such a scale that it’s going to begin to pollute international commerce, international diplomacy,” says Rhodes. “I mean, this system in general is creaky, and then when you have a superpower — which is what China is — beginning to engage in it, too, I don’t know how many more warning signals you need.”
In search of leverage
The hostage business is, in some respects, a matter of supply and demand. An increase or decrease in Westerners in a country affects the supply. A country’s domestic instability, as in Haiti now, and the perceived costs and benefits of hostage-taking can drive up demand.
Terrorists, militants and other non-state actors engage in hostage-taking from South America to Southeast Asia, but events in the Middle East have helped bring the numbers down in recent years.
“Military efforts to push back the control of terrorist groups after 2015 went a long way to reducing the opportunities for these groups to abduct U.S. citizens," says Seth Loertscher of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “At the same time, the media attention given to hostage-taking in 2014 and 2015 also contributed to making people more aware of the threat and likely made some people reconsider traveling to conflict regions or, at least, better preparing themselves for that travel.”
If the number of Americans seized by foreign governments has risen steadily over the past two decades, it is in part because Washington has gotten better at counting the cases and in part because the practice is becoming more popular.
In 2014, Obama ordered a review of the U.S. hostage recovery process after the Islamic State abducted and murdered several Americans, including journalist James Foley. That resulted in the creation of the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and the National Security Council’s Hostage Response Group. It also led to the passage of a new law requiring the secretary of state to identify what it considers U.S. nationals wrongfully detained by foreign governments and authorizing the president to impose sanctions on their captors. But all these steps have not driven down the number of incidents of hostage-taking.
Roger Carstens is the current hostage envoy and one of the few holdovers from the Trump administration. He says countries that regularly detain Westerners for leverage — such as Iran — might be incentivizing others to follow their lead.
'A game of whack-a-mole'
Before Obama’s hostage policy review, U.S. consular offices handled most cases of U.S. nationals lawfully — or wrongfully — detained abroad. Now, once it’s clear that an American is facing fabricated charges or being held because of their nationality or for coercive purposes, the special envoy is assigned to lead diplomatic efforts to get them home and make the case a priority for the White House.
Since the early 1970s, U.S. presidents have asserted a zero-concessions policy. In practice, they oversee intricate deals to bring hostages home. When a terrorist group takes an American hostage, the U.S. response is often a military one. But when dealing with foreign governments, risky rescue and evacuation plans are harder to justify.
“If a nation-state wrongfully detains a U.S. citizen, we’re now able to, in a way, marshal resources and marshal a diplomatic effort to try to bring them back,” says Carstens.
But those resources are effective only when the president approves their use. President Biden has drawn concern from the families of Austin Tice, a hostage in Syria since 2012, and nine Americans held in Venezuela, for not approving direct talks with those governments. And since the nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran have stalled, there is dwindling hope for talks to free the four American hostages in Iran, including Baquer and Siamak Namazi.
The father and son have been at the mercy of two flawed systems since 2016 and 2015, respectively. In Iran, they were convicted on bogus national security charges. In the United States, three administrations failed to negotiate their freedom while managing to bring other Americans home.
As the number of cases like the Namazis’ increases, and governments such as Rwanda’s flout international norms and imprison U.S. nationals, including Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree Paul Rusesabagina, the United States and other countries run the risk of accepting state hostage-taking as a problem without a solution.
One U.S. official compared the conventional approach to “a game of whack-a-mole,” arguing that without effective accountability and deterrent measures, the problem is bound to worsen.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly stated that he wants countries to work together to establish norms that prohibit the arbitrary detention of citizens for political purposes. He envisions a global ban similar to the one on chemical weapons that grew out of World War I. In February, Canada took a step toward that, launching the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations. The statement has 67 signatories.
But an international declaration or convention “is not going to impress the thugs who do this,” says Rand’s Jenkins, who noted that countries such as Iran and North Korea are already under sanctions and ”routinely operate outside the norms of international behavior.” Still, he says, it’s “good to have a foundation” to promote international cooperation.
Robert O’Brien, who served as President Donald Trump’s hostage envoy and, later, national security adviser, advocates a more aggressive approach involving the military. O’Brien says that while in office, he “wanted the word to get out to hostage-takers, but even to rogue governments, that they should always be looking over their shoulder.”
O’Brien worked with Carstens during the Trump administration, which secured the release of several Americans wrongfully detained overseas. Carstens says there isn’t sufficient data to know the long-term impacts of concessions, prisoner swaps or military force. And even if there were, it might not help future hostages.
“Every case is just a little bit different, and every nation-state and every terrorist group is just a little bit different,” says Carstens. “So even if you can rack and stack data on a certain country that has a history of taking people arbitrarily, will that actually translate to the next country or to a terrorist group? Maybe, maybe not. But we have to figure that out.”
So far, the Biden administration has won the freedom of an American jailed in Myanmar and two U.S. citizens who had been banned from leaving China since 2018. The latter coincided with the release of two Canadians held in China for more than 1,000 days, and the return to China of a Huawei executive detained at the United States’ request for nearly three years in Vancouver. The executive was freed after striking an agreement with the Justice Department acknowledging she helped Huawei conceal dealings in Iran that violated U.S. sanctions.
No rules anymore?
State hostage-taking for geopolitical purposes is part of an increasingly complicated threat matrix for people living outside their home country and an indicator that international law enforcement needs an upgrade. The rise in “Havana syndrome” sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers, Russia’s abuse of Interpol to silence critics and the rising tide of attacks by governments on dissident citizens overseas suggest a global theater where there are no rules anymore.
If the United States wants to send a message that foreign governments cannot hold Americans for diplomatic leverage, it might have to reckon with its own record on torture, rendition and the indefinite detention of foreign nationals.
To show the United States is part of the solution, Rhodes says Washington needs to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as a start.
U.S. officials trying to bring U.S. nationals home are combating ever-changing threats without effective tools and a shrinking moral high ground. In the short and long term, Washington and its allies must fundamentally alter how they approach these cases, and the U.S. president must get more creative in the response. If they don’t, the protections once provided by being American will seem more like relics from another time.