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On March 4, 2005, tragedy struck as U.S. troops fired on a car speeding toward a checkpoint near Baghdad International Airport, killing Nicola Calipari, an Italian secret service agent experienced in hostage negotiation, and wounding Giuliana Sgrena, the hostage freed after a month in captivity. The incident strained relations between Washington and Rome. The Sgrena kidnapping was not isolated, though, nor was the controversy surrounding her release unique. For more than a quarter century, kidnapping has been a tactic of choice among terrorists. In Iraq, though, terrorists have refined hostage-taking into a tactic of choice. Their strategy is multifold: They seek to terrorize the population, humiliate their opponents, and win political concessions from their adversaries. With its willingness to negotiate with and perhaps even paying ransom to the terrorists, the Italian government and others have compounded the problem.

The Motivation of Hostage-Takings

When Western governments and the media discuss security, it is often in the context of force protection and terrorism. When Iraqis speak of security, as often they mean freedom from violent and organized crime. While insurgents, terrorists, and criminals have kidnapped a number of foreigners, they have seized an even greater number of Iraqis. Within Iraq, the causes of kidnapping are multiple.

The majority of hostage-takers in Iraq are criminal. The Baath Party ruled Iraq with an iron fist. Initially, corruption was less rampant in Iraq than in the rest of the Arab world. But, with the long war against Iraq, the invasion of Kuwait, and the imposition of United Nations sanctions in 1990, government officials at all levels began to use their offices for personal enrichment. Sanctions and war created an environment where profiteering, black-marketeering, and organized crime thrived.[1] Kidnapping for ransom ballooned in the immediate aftermath of the war. Within hours of a seizure, the kidnappers contact the family to negotiate a ransom. Many Iraqis say they do not involve the police, many of whom they suspect are complicit. Because the kidnappings did not initially involve Coalition personnel, both the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Multi-National Forces declined to be involved. Hostages would be treated as a commodity, sometimes bought and sold between rival gangs. With time, political cells entered the fray, sometimes taking captives themselves, and other times purchasing foreigners seized by criminal gangs. The purchase of foreigners suggests ample funding rather than rag-tag bands of amateur Jihadists.

Terrorism is a tactic. While some foreign businessmen have been kidnapped for ransom, the motivation of kidnapping foreigners is primarily political. Terrorists target civilians because, in their calculation, the tactic works. Every operation has a cost. Whenever a terror cell surveys and grabs a target, it becomes vulnerable to exposure. Every terrorist operation provides forensic evidence which counter terror specialists can use to root out and roll up cells. Hostage-taking, therefore, only becomes a successful strategy when terrorists feel that the gains of their operation outweigh the costs.

Terrorists use the press to further their aims. With the airing of videotapes and repeated scenes of carnage, Arab and Western media have granted terrorists a platform. While terrorists once issued press statements from hijacked airliners, the growth of 24-hour satellite television and the internet has amplified their impact further. "To some extent, terrorists have the power we grant them—if we give them our attention, if our political choices are hostage to them," Johns Hopkins University professor and Middle East specialist Fouad Ajami observed.[2] Bulgarian Interior Ministry Chief Secretary General Boyko Borisov was more explicit when discussing then-ongoing discussions regarding Bulgarian hostages in Iraq. "You are part of the terrorists' game," he told reporters. "Every journalist should know that he is directly responsible for the hostages' fate."[3]

Kidnapping: An Effective Tactic

Hostage-taking has become a particularly effective tactic. Terrorists crave an audience. With the spread of terrorism in the late twentieth century, audiences became inured to violence. Suicide bombings which might once have garnered headlines and commentary for a week now pass with bare mention. For a bombing or slaughter to win significant public attention, it must either target children—the Palestine Liberation Organization's slaughter of school children in Ma'alot in 1974, or Chechen Jihadists seizure of a Beslan school thirty years later—or result in several thousand casualties, such as occurred in the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998 and on 9-11.

Kidnapping can bypass this dynamic by drawing out media attention and by allowing reporters to personalize the victim and humanize their story. For journalists, an assassination or bombing is anti-climatic; the press only begins its coverage after the operation has ended. But uncertainty about whether a hostage remains alive creates the suspense necessary for a good news story.

Terrorists and their sponsors have long exploited hostage-taking for political and diplomat gain. Hostage-taking rose to prominence with the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by radicals loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For 444 days, Khomeini's followers held 52 American diplomats. While Washington did not offer concessions, the crisis brought immediate political benefit. They not only disrupted the bilateral rapprochement which had started three days earlier when the U.S. National Security Advisor met with Islamic Republic moderates in Algiers, but also used the crisis to purge the revolutionary movement of moderates.

Once the Islamic Republic released its hostages, the Western media ended its constant coverage of events in Iran and the grievances of the new government. The horrific deaths generated by the Iran-Iraq War received scant exposure in the West, nor did the various bombings, purges, and economic depression which marked the first year of the theocracy's rule. The Islamic Re public reversed this neglect, though, when its terrorists proxies in Lebanon begin kidnapping Americans. As Tehran positioned itself as a channel for the release of the hostages, Washington again examined its bilateral problems with Iran. Tehran sought to leverage the hostages for diplomatic and material gain, although the affair ended badly in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair after Iranian authorities leaked word of the secret contacts to a Syrian newspaper.

Syrian president Hafez al-Assad followed the Iranian lead by using hostages seized by in Lebanon to bolster his own diplomatic position vis-à-vis the United States.[4] After a U.S. investigation linked the Syrian government to the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Assad organized the release of the acting president of the American University of Beirut who had been kidnapped the previous year by a Syrian-backed group. The White House publicly thanked the Syrian government, rewarding its duplicitous behavior.

Assad likewise exploited the 1985 Syrian-orchestrated release of captured of U.S. Navy pilot Lieutenant Robert Goodman and passengers taken hostage on TWA flight 847 in order to paint himself as a rational peace-maker, rather than as a terror sponsor. His involvement in the release of hostages for whose seizure he was in part responsible enabled him to undercut diplomatic and perhaps military consequences for Syrian complicity in the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and the TWA hijacking.

While many terrorists are backed by states, radical Islamism has changed the dynamics of terrorism. While some states still furnish jihadists and groups like al-Qaeda with aid,[5] state sponsors of terrorism are less able to restrain Islamist groups to narrow diplomatic goals. "There is no truce in Jihad against the enemies of Allah," Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, declared.[6] Jihadists have broader ideological goals that preclude compromise. Hostages become not pawns in a diplomatic struggle, but rather chits with which terrorists can both shock the outside world and appeal to their own constituency.

Whereas liberation movement terrorists seized hostages, they did not always seek to humiliate them. Islamist terrorists, however, humiliate those they perceive to be enemies as defined by their own intolerant definition of human worth.

In 1998, Chechen rebels broadcast their slaughter of a captured Russian soldier.[7] Counterterrorist officials who saw the complete video—unlike many lacking full sound—still comment on the horror generated by the sound of his aspiration upon the severing of his windpipe. The video, while not broadcast widely in the Western media, was an important propaganda tool for Chechens and Islamists both, for it signaled weakness of the Russian military.

Similarly, before decapitating Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, his captors forced him to state, "I am a Jew. My mother is a Jew." Among Islamists, conspiracy theories thrive, reinforced by influential preachers unschooled in the ways of the West. Pearl's confession was meant to humiliate him, and undercut the global Zionist conspiracy imagined by Islamist preachers. More recently within Iraq, terrorists have dressed their hostages in orange jumpsuits reminiscent of those worn by detainees in U.S. military prisons. Sheer brutality is effective. The video of the beheading of U.S. traveler Nicholas Berg circulated around the world shocking the Iraqis and Westerners alike. Chechen Islamists captivated the world not only by seizing a school in Beslan, Russia, but also by videotaping the hundreds of terrified school children whom they took hostage.

How effective are such tactics? By painting ruling parties as weak, terrorists paralyze society. The silent majority of ordinary citizens do not stick their heads out if they fear retribution. In Iraq, persistent security fears have undercut reconstruction and undercut the reputation of the interim Iraqi government in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis.

With regard to recruitment, they are not especially valuable. While Jihadist kidnappings terrorize, they do not attract recruits. The humiliation and slaughter of hostages is gratuitous. In Iraq and elsewhere, few citizens join terrorist groups out of admiration for their acts of violence. Many of the Jihadists, on the other hand, who join such groups have already been brainwashed by Salafist or Deobandi mosques. Only when the terrorists are successful in winning ransom, can they convert the funds received into payment for new recruits and operations. In March 2000, for example, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi paid an estimated $25 million ransom to win the release of priests, teachers, and children seized from a school on Basilan Island. Within months, Abu Sayyaf expanded from a couple hundred to more than a thousand members. The group used the influx of cash to upgrade their equipment. The ransom paid for speedboats and weapons used in subsequent kidnappings.[8]

How to Combat Hostage-Takers

Politicians tend to think and act in the short-term. Terrorists photograph or video tape their humiliated or fearful victims in order to agitate the public and pressure politicians to make a deal. In 1979, Iranian hostage-takers blindfolded and photographed their captives increasing public pressure on the Carter administration. Videos of pleading hostages, regardless of their nationality, augment pressure on governments to negotiate.

While negotiating may successfully address the short-term objective of freeing the hostage, it can increase terrorism in the long-term. Dialogue is dangerous. The very act of negotiating, whether directly or through intermediaries, legitimizes the perpetrators and the act. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the U.S. embassy seizure in Iran, many former hostages reflected upon their ordeal. According to David Roeder, one of the captives, "If we had done something other than just walked away [from Iran at the conclusion of the ordeal], I keep thinking maybe, just maybe, we wouldn't have planted the seed that terrorism is a profitable thing."[9] Terrorism has been very profitable. Kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon increased in the 1980s after the U.S. and Iran entered into secret talks to win their release.[10] Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. While President Ronald Reagan responded effectively to terrorist bombings—retaliating against Libya in 1986, for example—his administration failed in its strategy toward hostage-takers. Washington did learn the lesson, though. The George W. Bush administration concluded that the U.S. government cannot obsess about hostages.[11]

Hostage negotiation has also backfired in Israel. Despite Jerusalem's oft-stated "no negotiations" policy, the Israeli government has engaged terrorists to win the release of hostages, or the repatriation of their bodies. Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, Israel, explained that, as a democracy, Israel "is more prone to the influence of public opinion in general and that of families of victims in particular" than more authoritarian countries like Russia, Following every deal, though, with Hezbollah or Palestinian terror groups, kidnappings and terror attacks increased.[12]

In Iraq, hostage negotiation has consistently backfired. On July 7, 2004, insurgents kidnapped a Filipino truck driver in Iraq. The hostage-takers demanded that the Filipino soldiers leave Iraq by July 31, a demand with which the Philippine President Gloria Arroyo complied. Terrorism and hostage-taking skyrocketed. Foreign workers are dead because Arroyo's decision to comply with the kidnappers' demands demonstrated that terrorism worked.

The French and Italian government's decision to ransom their hostages has encouraged further hostage taking. In August 2004, the Iraqi Islamic Army seized two French journalists. Contradicting official denials, a high official in the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, France's secret service, confirmed that ransom had been paid.[13] Serge July, editor of left-leaning Liberation questioned whether the cost of Chirac's political gestures was too high.[14] The willingness of French officials to grovel on al-Jazeera[15] and to discuss political concessions encouraged further kidnapping. French unilateralism in response to the kidnapping undercut press safety in Iraq.

One week after the French foreign minister appeared on al-Jazeera to remind the insurgents of how "pro-Arab" French policy was, insurgents kidnapped Italian journalists Simona Torretta and Simona Pari. The terrorists rightly calculated that European leaders were weak. They were right. While the Italian government denied the payment of any ransom, Gustavo Selvo, the head of an Italian parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said that there had been a payment of $1 million. He told France's RTL radio, "The lives of the girls was the most important thing. In principle, we shouldn't give in to blackmail, but this time we had to."[16] On August 25, 2005, Maurizio Scelli, the outgoing chief of the Italian Red Cross, said that the Italian government provided four wanted Iraqi terrorists and their children with medical care in exchange for the hostage release.[17]

Whatever the actual terms, the Italian government's decision to reward terrorism contributed to further violence. Following the accidental shooting of Calipari, additional reports surfaced about Italian hostage release strategy. Senior Italian officials acknowledged that Italian authorities regularly paid hostage-takers.[18]

How then should Western governments respond to the seizure of hostages? With firmness calculated to defend the long-term safety of both their own citizens and Iraqis. Shifting tactics has characterized the Iraqi insurgency. Their have been waves of political assassinations, attacks directed against Coalition military personnel, targeting of policemen, and car bombings. The terrorists shift tactics when they cease to be effective. With regard to bombings, both the Coalition military and the Iraqis made their vehicles and buildings less vulnerable. Terrorists do not employ ineffective tactics. The key to defeating the scourge of kidnapping is to make it unprofitable.

Fabrizio Quattrocchi, a 36-year-old security guard kidnapped in Iraq, undermined the terrorists with his defiance. In contrast to Kenneth Bigley, the British hostage who never let up begging Prime Minister Tony Blair for his life, Quattrocchi refused to be humiliated. "I will show you how an Italian dies!" he declared in the second before terrorists murdered him. Rather than kneel before his grave, he rose in defiance. Canadian columnist Mark Steyn observed, "He ruined the movie for his killers. As a snuff video and recruitment tool, it was all but useless, so much so that the Arabic TV stations declined to show it."[19] This incident simply shows the power of defiance.

Quattrocchi had extraordinary courage. Many hostages may not. But their governments should. While terrorists have killed many American hostages, the lack of concession has made Americans an unattractive target. So too has been the U.S. response. On September 8, 2005, U.S. forces freed hostage Roy Hallums after nearly ten months in captivity. Coalition forces have also tracked and captured terrorists responsible for the murder of hostages, such as those who killed an Egyptian diplomat. Should Coalition forces track—and kill—the terrorists responsible, hostage-taking would cease to be an effective tactic.

History is remarkably consistent. Appeasing terror fails; so too does neglect of terror. Left alone, terrorism metastasizes. The only way to defeat terror is to raise the cost of the tactic. In Iraq, this means not ransoming hostages, but confronting the hostage-takers. The terrorists are responsible for their actions, but as the security situation deteriorates in Iraq, European politicians should take more care that they do no harm.

[1] For the growth of corruption and organized crime in Iraq, see: Kanan Makiya. "All Levels of the Iraqi Government were Complicit." Middle East Quarterly. Spring 2005. Pages 81-82.
[2] Elaine Sciolino. "Out of Sight… Giving Terror the Silent Treatment." The New York Times. February 23, 1997.
[3] "Bulgarian Media 'Part of Terrorists' Game' over Iraq Hostages—Official." Bulgarian News Agency BGNES website. July 19, 2004.
[4] Daniel Pipes highlighted the examples which follow in: "Assad's Cunning Game." The Washington Post. November 4, 1986.
[5] 9-11 Commission Report. (Washington: the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United Staets, July 22, 2004), Pages 60-61, 240-241.
[6] William Helmreich. "No sense negotiating with terrorists." Newsday (New York). June 30, 2004.
[7] Timothy Furnish. "Beheading in the Name of Islam." Middle East Quarterly. Spring 2005. Page 51.
[8] "Abu Sayyaf History." U.S. Pacific Command. March 5, 2002.
[9] Beth Whitehorse. "A Mark on Your Soul." Newsday (New York). November 4, 2004.
[10] Barry Rubin. "U.S. Policy and the Middle East, 1985-1988." U.S. Middle East Policy Database. Middle East Review of International Affairs.
[11] Collin Levey. "Lessons from Lebanon." The Wall Street Journal. October 11, 2001.
[12] Caroline Glick. "Column One: Negotiating with Terrorists." The Jerusalem Post. November 7, 2003.
[13] Le Monde, Dec. 22, 2004. This episode is discussed more thoroughly in Oliver Guitta. "The Chirac Doctrine." Middle East Quarterly. Autumn 2005.
[14] Agence France-Presse, Jan. 25, 2005.
[15] Interview with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, Al-Jazeera, Sept. 1, 2004.
[16] "Ransom Row after Italian Freed." September 29, 2004.
[17] "Italian Red Cross Chief Describes ‘Concealing' Iraq Hostage Release from US." La Stampa (Turin), August 25, 2005, page 3; Richard Owen and Daniel McGrory. "Secret Red Cross ‘Deal' Freed Italians." The Times (London). August 26, 2005.
[18] Richard Owen. "Italy Critised over alleged ransom to free hostage." The Times. March 9, 2005.
[19] Mark Steyn. "The Quality of Mersey,", October 11, 2004.