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What does it take to free a captured American?

August 27, 2014 at 6:19 PM EST
A wave of American hostages held by Islamic extremists has raised questions about the U.S. policy not to pay ransoms. Jeffrey Brown talks to David Rohde of Reuters and Brian Jenkins of RAND Corporation for views on the divergence between the United States and other countries on this issue.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me now, David Rohde, an investigative reporter for Reuters. He’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former reporter for The New York Times, where he was working when he was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008. He escaped after seven months in captivity. And Brian Jenkins, a terrorism and security expert who has advised in hostage negotiations, he’s a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation.

Brian Jenkins, let me start with you.

Explain first for us the thinking behind the U.S. policy to not pay ransoms?  And to what degree does that govern third parties from stepping in and negotiating?

BRIAN JENKINS, RAND Corporation: Well, the U.S. policy is that the U.S. government itself will not pay ransom, will not release prisoners, will not make other concessions to terrorists holding hostages.

It does so in part on a belief that by holding to a no-concessions position, it will deter future kidnappings of Americans or, at the very least, were it to abandon that position, that is, to express a willingness to negotiate in these cases, that that would only really paint a target on the back of American citizens abroad.

U.S. policy doesn’t prohibit negotiations by others from attempting to ransom people, nor does it preclude creative diplomacy, as we may have seen a demonstration of in the — in the Curtis case. The other part of not paying ransom, though, is also based on the fact that the ransoms are used to finance further terrorist operations.

The report is that ISIS demanded $130 million for the return of James Foley. Now, that’s the equivalent of several hundred thousand AK-47s on the black market or the equivalent of more than 200 9/11 operations as financed by al-Qaida.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask David Rohde, because, as we said, in the case of Peter Theo Curtis, there was speculation that might have been intervention and help from Qatar in this case.

Does that sound possible or likely, given the way these things work?  What do you think about the policy?

DAVID ROHDE, Reuters: I think, in the case — first, it’s absolutely fantastic that he’s home.

But Qatar has to answer questions. Was he was held captive for two years. And, to me, it’s very clear. There’s been rumors for a long time that Qatar was actually backing the al-Nusra Front, this al-Qaida-allied group that was holding Theo Curtis for these two years.

And now they’re saying they just managed to get him released from this al-Qaida-aligned group. I know from my own experience in captivity, holding a captive is very labor-intensive. There’s many guards for the group. They spend a lot of money on food to keep the captive alive.

So whoever gave Theo Curtis up had to get either something in return, you know, potentially a ransom from the Qatari government, or this shows how close, you know, Qatar’s relationship is to this al-Qaida-related group.

And there’s a broader problem with governments. The U.S. did this in the past with the Soviets in Afghanistan. We used jihadis as proxies to fight the Soviets. But, today, it looks like Qatar and definitely Pakistan, they work with these jihadist groups. And it’s very dangerous. These groups can’t be controlled. They’re Frankensteins. And it’s a real mistake to have that policy, I believe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, David Rohde, I did want to ask you that, because, as we said, many European countries do negotiate and give ransoms. They deny it, but it is apparently widely known that they do it.

So there is a divergence, right, between the U.S. and other countries. And you have argued that this has been a serious problem.

DAVID ROHDE: Well, it is — first, kidnapping is a growing problem. A colleague of mine at Reuters just wrote a story today about a Japanese man who traveled to Syria. He was sort of unstable mentally. He was homeless for a period in Japan. He’s now been taken captive.

And I just don’t feel that this — the U.S. and British approach of no ransoms and the Europe approach of paying, it’s not working. I’m sure, in the region, that the perception is that there was a ransom paid for Theo Curtis, whether or not there was a ransom paid.

When I was in captivity — this was now five years ago — Captain Phillips, who was famously rescued off the coast of Somalia by Navy SEALs, my Taliban kidnapper heard news about that on the local-language BBC radio broadcast. He said, no, no, there was no Navy raid. That is a lie. The U.S. secretly paid $15 million.

So, you know, kidnapping is working. They’re getting huge amounts of money. And there needs to be a more coordinated approach.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Brian Jenkins, is it possible to have a more coordinated approach?  Or are these things just so politically sensitive that every country is going to make its own decision in each case?

BRIAN JENKINS: I think it’s unlikely that we will see a coordinated international policy in dealing with these episodes.

First of all, as already pointed out, the governments have different positions on this. A kidnapping of a hostage of any nationality creates a crisis for that particular government. As we have seen in our own experience, hostage events can turn into political crises, for the Carter administration during the abduction of the Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, for the Reagan administration when it was revealed that, contrary to U.S. policy, the U.S. had secretly sold arms in an effort to spring the hostages being held in Lebanon.

The European governments are pragmatic about this. They say rather pay a ransom than create a government — crisis that can bring down the government.

I don’t see we’re going to — I don’t think we’re going to see a unified international position on this.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about — David Rohde, we also saw today the mother of Steven Sotloff speaking out in that video. How usual or unusual is that?  What role do families typically play?  And what is their relationship with the government in cases like this?

DAVID ROHDE: I mean, it shows the desperation these American families face.

And the problem with the current approach is that these European ransoms are growing. The record that I have heard of was that a state-owned French company paid $40 million for the release of four prisoners last year in Niger. That is $10 million a hostage. In a sense, these growing European ransoms skew the market.

So the Curtis family and the Foleys — you mentioned 130 — it was mentioned earlier the $130 million demand. There is nothing they can do to possibly come up with that amount of money. The government, the American government will advice them, help them with how to handle phone calls, and these kind of things.

But the government will not — the American government will not pay. They will turn a blind eye if a family or an organization can raise a ransom. But, again, this is a growing problem. The ransoms are rising. And it’s impossible for Americans.

I just felt terrible for these families. It’s this sort of hidden world that they are trapped in. And they really don’t know what to do. And I applaud — I think was a very positive thing to make that announcement today by Mrs. Sotloff. Maybe, maybe it might just save her son.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there.

David Rohde and Brian Jenkins, thank you both very much.

DAVID ROHDE: Thank you.