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#54: With Danielle Gilbert
This week in The Hundred, we’re talking to an expert about kidnapping, hostage-taking, rebels, terrorists and rogue governments. Subscribe below to make sure you don’t miss any future editions.
Danielle Gilbert is the Edelson Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. She regularly briefs government officials on kidnappings and hostage taking. Our questions are in bold, her answers in quotation marks.
What is coercive kidnapping?
“In my work, I define “coercive kidnapping” as “forceful abduction accompanied by demands that condition the victim’s release.” Two features distinguish coercive kidnapping from other forms of violence that might seem similar. First, coercive kidnappings are abductions, in that the kidnapper forcefully removes the victim to a new location. (This distinguishes coercive kidnapping from other forms of hostage taking, like hijackings or embassy sieges, in which the hostage takers remain in a known place with the victims.) Second, coercive kidnappings are accompanied by demands of a third-party target, the satisfaction of which would hypothetically condition the victim’s release. (This distinguishes coercive kidnappings from other, non-conditional forms of abduction, like human trafficking or forced recruitment.)
If you imagine a Venn diagram, where one circle is “abduction” and the other is “hostage taking,” “coercive kidnapping” sits at the intersection of the two.”
Why do rebels and terrorists do it?
“The short answer is: rebels and terrorists kidnap because it works and it pays. Without any special equipment or resources, rebel and terrorist groups can use kidnapping to coerce massive concessions or attract substantial attention to their cause. The longer answer is: there are different reasons that groups might kidnap for ransom, prisoner swaps, or attention. In my research on ransom kidnapping (the most prevalent form of coercive kidnapping), I find that armed groups kidnap as tax enforcement. A lot of rebel and terrorist groups impose taxes on local populations, and they use kidnapping as an efficient, lucrative way to punish tax shirking and compel the population to continue to pay.”
Just how lucrative is it?
“Kidnapping can be extremely lucrative for armed groups. For example, one of the armed groups that I study, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC), kidnapped tens of thousands of Colombian civilians from the 1980s to 2010s. At the height of their kidnapping, the FARC made an estimated $200 million a year in ransom payments.
That figure doesn’t include an additional, nearly $200 million a year they made through their taxes—which were paid under the threat of possible kidnapping violence. So you could argue that the group was making nearly $400 million a year (nearly 85% of their annual revenue) from kidnapping or the threat of kidnapping. This is particularly notable because of the widespread assumption that the FARC and other Colombian rebel groups made much of their money from drug trafficking.
Of course, this isn’t just a Colombia problem. In the 2000s and 2010s, the world’s most notorious terrorist groups including Al Qaeda and the Islamic State raised hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom payments, leading former Undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury Department to call ransoms the ‘most significant source of terror financing’.”
Why do governments engage in kidnapping?
“I might not call it kidnapping, but governments absolutely take hostages. Rather than abduct individuals and take them to remote locations (kidnapping), some governments are currently engaging in what co-author Gaëlle Rivard Piché and I call hostage diplomacy: using national criminal justice systems to hold foreigners hostage. Governments arrest and charge foreigners with crimes with the intention of using prisoners for foreign policy leverage. It’s hostage taking committed under the color and guise of law.
Just like kidnapping, hostage diplomacy works for its perpetrators: governments have imprisoned foreigners to successfully coerce a growing number of prisoner swaps. In the last decade, the governments of China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Venezuela have used hostage diplomacy to extract concessions from the American, Australian, British, Canadian, and Japanese governments, to name a few.”
Is hostage-taking by governments on the rise?
“It certainly appears as if hostage taking by governments is on the rise. I say “appears” because we’re really not sure of the real number of state hostages, either now or in the past. But one strong indicator comes from the advocacy organizations, consultants, and lawyers who support hostage cases, who unanimously point to the changing trend. A decade ago, the vast majority of the cases and families they supported had a loved one kidnapped abroad by terrorist or rebel groups; now, the vast majority of cases are prisoners “wrongfully detained” in authoritarian states.”
“There are a few reasons that state hostage taking might be on the rise. First, it could reflect the dominant, current conflict paradigm: in the early 2000s, we saw lots of kidnapping during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alongside the rise of certain terrorist groups; now, we see a different form of hostage taking in the return to “great power” or “strategic” competition.
Second, it could be on the rise because perpetrators are learning that it works. As autocratic governments see the United States and other western allies making concessions to bring their citizens home, those governments learn that hostage diplomacy is an effective tool to coerce prisoner exchanges, debt and sanctions relief, and other concessions. I should note here that we don’t know that to be true empirically, but the logic makes sense.
Finally, the phenomenon might not actually be on the rise; we may simply be observing it more often. Now that there are names and legal categories for it (“state hostage taking,” “hostage diplomacy,” “wrongful detention,” and so on) and government entities explicitly tasked with combatting it (such as the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs), we may only think that it’s on the rise because we’re seeing it more clearly.”
Media coverage on hostage-taking seems to differ drastically. Is that true?
“Absolutely. Some hostages get a ton of media attention; some hostage takings are never reported at all. Some hostages receive public sympathy, while others are subject to controversy or scorn. Several factors seem to matter a lot for media coverage.
First and foremost, it’s entirely up to the hostage’s family if they want the kidnapping to be made public or kept out of the press. Sometimes, publicizing a hostage taking can put the hostage’s life or negotiations at risk, so the government will reasonably advise caution.
Once a family decides to go public, there are a few factors relevant for media coverage of kidnappings. First, those framed as “terrorism” receive a lot more media coverage than kidnappings without a terrorism frame. Second, the number of hostages abducted together significantly affect media coverage—inversely. So, the more hostages there are in a given hostage-taking incident, the less media coverage they receive. Third, there is mixed evidence about the role of race and gender in media coverage of hostage takings, but a body of work suggests that there is a “missing white woman syndrome” in hostage taking media coverage: white, female victims of abduction receive a lot more attention than their non-white counterparts especially.
There is also huge variation in the tone and the framing of different hostages in the media. In my ongoing work with Lauren Prather, we explore the role of “deservingness” in hostage-taking incidents—or whether the public believes that the hostage “deserves” to be rescued, based on the hostage’s circumstances of capture. When hostages are seen as responsible for putting themselves in dangerous situations, the conversation tends to center on individual responsibility and judgment, blaming the hostage rather than the hostage taker.”
What’s the argument in favor of ransom-paying by governments?
“The best argument in favor of ransom-paying by government is that it works to bring hostages home. The vast majority of hostage cases are resolved when ransom payments are received and hostages are released alive. The debate over ransoms is one of ethics, not efficacy.”
What’s the argument against?
“There are several key arguments against paying ransoms (or more broadly, to making concessions of any kind). First, it rewards, rather than punishes, bad behavior. Second, it can strengthen adversaries, providing them with the vast sums of money (or released prisoners) to commit further violence. If we’re talking about ransom payments to terrorist organizations, it may also be illegal: in the United States, paying ransom to a designated foreign terrorist organization constitutes material support for terrorism. Finally, there is a concern (albeit debated) that making concessions today will incentivize more hostage taking attacks tomorrow. In that vein, the argument is that paying ransoms to bring back hostages now will only increase the danger for a country’s citizens in the future.”
What question would you have liked to be asked and what is your answer to it?
“It seems like hostage taking has evolved over time: from hijackings to kidnappings to hostage diplomacy. Where is it going next?
I’m concerned about the future of hostage taking in the cyber realm. Two directions in particular keep me up at night. First, ransomware is very much on the rise, and I think of ransomware as hostage taking in the cyber realm. It has become increasingly easier for hackers to pull off painful ransomware attacks, given the spread of cryptocurrency and malware-as-a-service. While a ransomware attack might manifest as an expense, embarrassment, or nuisance, a handful of attacks in the last several years demonstrate that critical infrastructure—and thus, human safety and wellbeing—are at risk.
I don’t know if we’re prepared for that trend. Second, I’m worried about the combination of old hostage-taking tactics with new technology—namely, the risk of driverless vehicles being hijacked. From the perpetrator’s perspective, hijackings are costly, because the hijacker must negotiate their way out or die trying. But if they’re able to hijack a vehicle from a safe location, and simply operate a car or public transit by remote control, they could cause considerable harm.”
That’s it for this edition of The Hundred. Please share this post with friends and colleagues if you found it interesting. If you’re reading this via Substack and not email, you can also restack it. Thanks!