How a Decade of the iPhone Changed Global Kidnapping


Did you spend any time at the Apple Store this holiday season? It was this week in 2007 that Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s first iPhone, what he called “a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device.” A decade later, Apple CEO Tim Cook reflected on the company’s most important product, stating that “today more than ever it is redefining the way we communicate, entertain, work and live.” Indeed, the iPhone changed what we expected our phones to do. It changed the way we eat, sleep, date, and play. It changed political protest, reporting on political protest, and political communication. From its minority share of the global smartphone market, the iPhone revolutionized the entire industry.

It has also handed a huge gift to hostage takers all over the world. Today’s smartphone, with its video camera and internet connection capabilities, is a political kidnapper’s perfect accomplice. It has enabled a subtle but seismic shift in global kidnapping, reshaping the costs of taking a person, with dramatic implications for victim safety, release negotiations, and terrorist recruitment. To understand the monumental change that technology has wrought on hostage-taking strategy, let’s first examine two other advances that changed global kidnapping: commercial airlines and the nightly news.

Weapon of the Week

An ancient tool of diplomacy and war, hostage taking regained global prominence in the 1960s and 1970s when non-state actors adopted the practice as a tool to fill coffers, gain media attention, and force political concessions from rivals. From the Italian Red Brigades’ kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minster Aldo Moro, to the M-19’s capture of 16 ambassadors and the entire Colombian Supreme Court, violent political groups learned that they could take high value hostages to lasting detrimental effect. Two 20th century technological innovations — commercial air travel and nightly broadcast news — brought hostage taking to “epidemic proportions.”

Starting in 1961, criminals and ideologues in the United States began hijacking domestic American flights and coercing landings in Cuba, where they pursued free passage and revolutionary dreams. As Brendan Koerner depicts in The Skies Belong to Us, this innovative tactic was soon adopted by violent political groups in the Middle East and Latin America. The 1970s saw a surge in skyjacking terrorism, elevating some of its most notorious perpetrators like Carlos the Jackal and Leila Khaled to international celebrity status. Terrorist and rebel groups created massive spectacle and drew attention to their cause. Though demands for exorbitant ransoms or policy concessions were frequently denied, perpetrators’ demands for media attention, publication of a manifesto, release of prisoners, and ultimately safe passage were regularly met.

The use of commercial airlines was particularly appealing to hostage takers for several reasons. First, an assortment of international passengers meant hijackers won attention from audiences in multiple countries for a single attack. Second, skyjackers needed only kill or coerce one person on board — the pilot — to gain control of a relatively flexible form of transportation. Moreover, because an airplane is a contained box in the sky, passengers would be relatively subdued: While hostages might be able to escape from an embassy or a jump from a commandeered train, any attempt to thwart a skyjacking might kill everyone on board. In effect, hostages guarded themselves.

Political groups around the world adopted this tactic. George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the most notorious proponents of hostage taking and skyjackings, encouraged cooperation among groups across regions and causes. From that time, a wide variety of violent political groups copied each another’s techniques, and occasionally even collaborated. Even as these attacks increased, airline security remained minimal. Despite years of domestic flight hijackings, the American airline industry fought bitterly against implementing security measures, afraid this would be bad for business.

The second technological innovation that altered hostage taking emerged during the 1979 siege of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Lasting 444 days, this was the longest hostage crisis in history. But it was the media attention it garnered that made an even larger lasting impression. On November 8, 1979, four days after the embassy takeover, ABC began broadcasting the special program “Nightline: America Held Hostage.” This program ran nightly for the next 440 days, transforming television news and establishing the prototype for daily disaster coverage. The perpetrators did not have to demand a monopoly of newscaster attention, but were granted round-the-clock, global propagation of their work. While satisfying Americans’ concern and curiosity about this dramatic attack, coverage provided strong incentives for further hostage taking.

A New Operating System

Since the 1980s, hostage taking has taken a clandestine turn. That is, rather than barricade an embassy or hijack a plane, perpetrators have increasingly opted to kidnap victims and detain them in undisclosed locations. As airline and diplomatic security have improved, the barrier to a large hostage taking has become much higher. At the same time, groups have successfully funded their rebellions through private, ransom kidnappings of wealthy individuals, turning to families and employers who do not risk political consequences for making concessions. According to the Global Terrorism Database, though hijackings represented nearly 20 percent of political hostage takings from 1970 to 1975, they only represented 3.3 percent of such attacks from 2000 to 2015 – the last 15 years of the data – including 9/11. The same dataset counts 537 kidnappings in the 1970s, and 5,875 in the last decade — increasing tenfold. While clandestine kidnappings really took off in Lebanon in the 1980s (at least 100 hostages from 24 different countries), it has remained significant in every region of the world today. The four wealthiest terror groups on recordISIL, FARC, al-Qaeda, and Hizballah — are known for raising millions through ransom payments.

As the form of hostage taking has changed, so too has the strategic calculus for perpetrators. The global availability of powerful personal computers, widespread internet access, and the proliferation of apps, have handed kidnappers another enormous benefit in their quest for attention: The contemporary kidnapper does not need television cameras to publicize his goals, nor does he need to demand publicity to achieve it. With powerful computers in their pockets, kidnappers can broadcast their demands and create a violent spectacle, all without revealing their location.

So What?

Before internet videos, hostage taking featured a tradeoff in the pursuit of attention, with what security scholars call costly signaling: an expensive means of conveying information that only the most resolved actors would pursue. It is a costly signal when a perpetrator is locked down with hostages in an embassy or airplane: She risks her life to gain publicity and show resolve. Conversely, a kidnapper can prioritize safety but forego attention. The adoption of portable cameras with internet technology has eliminated the choice; now kidnappers can access the attention they desire without the cost of revealing their location. As perpetrators transformed the costs of kidnapping and into benefits, this technological shift has devastating, and non-obvious ramifications for kidnapping outcomes.

First, it keeps perpetrators safe. From the early examples of Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg to the wave of ISIL beheadings, the most obvious outcome of the tradeoff is that perpetrators can create a spectacle without revealing their location or risking capture. Previously, by remaining present at the scene, a perpetrator demonstrated she was willing to die or accept significant risk to herself for her cause; she had to achieve all her demands, negotiate her escape, or die trying. In other words, before portable internet technology, kidnappers had to choose between attention and safety; now they can easily have both.

Second, it makes negotiating harder. In the early years of embassy sieges and skyjackings, perpetrators’ list of demands started with two: media coverage and their own release once the captives were freed. If negotiations worked in the perpetrators’ favor, the list would continue from there to ransom payments, release of prisoners, and policy changes. Attention and acquittal are merely distasteful for the authorities, but concessions cross a red line. A promise of news cameras or newspaper publication of a manifesto was once traded for the safe release of hundreds of innocent civilians, with little lost. In publishing their own spectacle from an undisclosed location, kidnappers only demand what states are most loathe to concede. This has in turn supported the development of a thriving kidnap and ransom insurance industry, where the third-party insurers can transfer massive payments without political backlash.

Relatedly, this shift away from traditional media can broaden the audience for violence. The modern-day kidnapper does not need to bargain with the media to publish a manifesto, but posts it to Facebook or Twitter, where it may go viral. We might expect that conventional media would be reluctant to promote such stories. Instead, the media receive graphic images as ready clickbait, without the risk of sending a journalist to cover the conflict. Jim Foley’s beheading by ISIL in 2014 is the foreign policy story most familiar to Americans since 9/11 — a single death in a war the United States would join in response. The spread of these images on the web is critical to groups’ recruitment efforts, as their symbolic violence is shared worldwide.

Most importantly, the revolution in kidnapping technology incentivizes increased violence. Without risking their own lives, perpetrators seek new ways to signal resolve. The modern kidnapper thus artificially raises the cost of kidnapping in two ways. First, they can prolong the duration of captivity. This can increase the group’s logistical burden and cost of kidnapping (more time to feed, guard, and constantly relocate the hostage), and it can increase risk to the group’s safety (the longer they retain a captive, the more susceptible they become to a raid). Second, I suspect this change has inspired groups to directly increase the pain they inflict. To approximate the spectacle of a skyjacking, groups commit gruesome, symbolic attacks on kidnapping victims. This results in some of the most brutal elements of kidnapping violence. It is not merely that the victim is detained, but that he is likely in cramped, dark conditions, deprived of food and light, for extended periods of time. It is not merely that the group has demanded a ransom payment, but has done so in a video that features the victim on his knees, bound, under threat of sword or gun. It is not just that hostages are in prisoners’ garb, but specifically in orange jumpsuits, performing a symbolic retribution for Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. This kind of violence, unrelated to the kidnappers’ ability to kill, is highly powerful in communicating resolve to far-flung recruits, augmenting the calculus of captivity.

Innovations in kidnapping are fueled not by advances in conventional weaponry or perpetrators’ material strength but, rather, by their adoption and manipulation of modern technology. The growing use of ransomware and other forms of extortion suggests that racketeering will move away from physical violence in the coming years. But for those groups seeking global attention, technology only augments hostage-taking violence.


Danielle Gilbert is a PhD candidate in political science at The George Washington University and a New Era fellow with Bridging the Gap.

Image: Toshiyuki IMAI/Flickr