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Despite advances under Obama, lack of transparency can hinder hostage families

A man holds a sign in memory of American journalist James Foley during a protest against the Assad regime in Syria in Times Square in New York on Aug. 22, 2014. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

An estimated 200 Americans are abducted each year by terrorists and criminal gangs. The family back home must learn quickly about the captors and how to meet their demands.

Some cases are resolved in weeks or months. But if the captors are terrorists, the process to free the hostages becomes much more complicated.

The U.S. government does not talk directly with known terrorist groups, let alone pay them money, nor does it want to encourage potential hostage-takers of getting a payout. The rules are not as restrictive when dealing with criminal kidnappers, rather than terrorists.

When it comes to negotiating hostage releases from terrorist networks, the United States’ “no-concessions” policy puts many decisions in the hands of the families, leaving them wondering what to do.

Should they contact the media, or would that put a higher price on their loved one’s head? Should they authorize a military rescue, or would the captives be shot in the raid?

READ MORE: Refusing to pay ransom won’t stop kidnapping, says former hostage

In one high-profile case, freelance video journalist James Foley was abducted while he was covering the war in Syria and held by Islamic State militants for nearly two years. They beheaded him in August 2014. U.S. special forces had attempted a rescue, but Foley and other hostages were no longer at the location.

“During Jim’s captivity, I was repeatedly told ‘this policy keeps us safe.’ But after Jim was held for two years and brutally murdered, I really began to have some doubts,” said his mother Diane Foley at a New America panel discussion this week.

The FBI and State Department are not allowed to engage directly with a terrorist-labeled group, “which left us alone as a family to figure out how to negotiate Jim’s release,” she said.

At the time, the threat of prosecution discouraged those who might want to raise ransom funds to pay the captors. “We didn’t want any of our generous friends to be prosecuted for helping get Jim home,” said Foley.

After James Foley’s grisly death, the Obama administration reviewed the U.S. hostage policy and implemented some changes in 2015, including assigning a government liaison to the family to help with their ordeal, and setting up an interagency body, called a Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, to ease the sharing of information within the government about a case.

READ MORE: With policy shift, hostage family hopes to be last ‘that fails to receive’ government support

“It’s been a sea change. When Jim was in captivity, it was no one’s job to bring him home,” said Diane Foley, who now leads the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which offers help to hostage families, freelance reporters and journalism students. She said establishing the interagency body to communicate directly with the families is a major improvement, though some policy constraints are still holding the agents back. “We need to let our experts do their job,” she said.

In the cases where Americans are held with people from other countries, she continued, all of the governments need to work together to get their citizens back no matter what their individual stances are on paying concessions.

Freelance photographer Austin Tice was kidnapped in August 2012 while reporting in Syria. Photo by Christy Wilcox/AFP/GettyImages

Freelance photographer Austin Tice was kidnapped in August 2012 while reporting in Syria. Photo by Christy Wilcox/AFP/GettyImages

Advocacy group Hostage US determined that about 200 Americans are kidnapped each year, based on statistics from the U.S. government and private security companies, along with the organization’s own research. The kidnappings include those perpetrated by criminal gangs looking to extort money, in addition to the high-profile terrorist cases.

Rachel Briggs, who started Hostage UK in 2004 and, more recently, Hostage US to support the families of hostages, was a university student when her British uncle was kidnapped in 1996 while working as an engineer in Colombia. The ELN, a left-wing rebel group now engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government, held him for more than seven months before releasing him.

“The misperception is that it’s only high-profile people who get taken, or just journalists or aid workers,” whereas many are regular people working unglamorous jobs in foreign lands, Briggs said. “The experience you have as a family member is you’re desperate to find out any information you possibly can about where, why, who, how.” You become an expert on that part of the world, she said.

A New America report, released in January and discussed at the center this week, throws into question the U.S. policy of not paying terrorist organizations a ransom to release American hostages.

The researchers gathered data from 1,200 hostage cases made public since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. They found that of 90 Westerners killed by their captors, 41 were American. The next highest at 14 were British. The UK also has a no-concessions policy.

Even with the no-payment policy, Americans — who made up just under one-fifth of the total cases studied — were more likely to be killed, said Christopher Mellon, head author of the report. Other Western countries that pay concessions, such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain, don’t have the military capacity to launch a rescue attempt, he said.

He acknowledged that more data is needed — and made public — so that Americans can decide for themselves if they want to maintain the current U.S. policy.

The information also is critical to help the families see results and decide whether to contact the media or agree to a military raid, said Briggs. She encouraged governments, international corporations, security firms and families to contact Hostage US through its website and toll-free hotline to add their information to the data set.

Diane Foley said she understood why corporations and governments are reluctant to make public their information on people held in captivity. “This is understandable because of concerns about harm for hostages and the success of quiet negotiation, but it truly constrains research because it doesn’t give us real numbers to ensure that our policy is the best,” she said.

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