‘No Concessions’? A Closer Look at U.S. Hostage Recovery Policy


Jason Rezaian, Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison — Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out (Anthony Bourdain/ Ecco, 2019).  

Joel Simon, We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages, and Ransom (Columbia Global Reports, 2019).

From the start, America has had a hostage problem. In the early 1790s, the nation faced one of its first foreign policy crises when Barbary pirates from Algiers captured more than a dozen American naval vessels, demanding enormous ransoms. When Congress sent $1 million to free the ships and their crews, a gang of Tripolitan pirates interceded and demanded payment of their own. As G. Thomas Woodward wrote, “One characteristic common to all diplomatic dealings with the Barbary powers was that no payment was ever final.” Having learned their extortion was successful, the pirates kidnapped another 700 Americans over the subsequent 20 years.

Fast forward to the 20th century, which has been riddled with concessions to hostage takers. “America will never make concessions to terrorists,” President Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed in 1985. “To do so would only invite more terrorism … Once we head down that path there would be no end to it, no end to the suffering of innocent people, no end to the bloody ransom all civilized nations must pay.” His remarks were a response to Shiite Hizballah militants’ hijacking TWA flight 847 with dozens of Americans on board. Over the course of 17 days, the hijackers killed an American Navy diver and held 39 men hostage, while demanding the release of 766 Lebanese prisoners held in Israel. Three days after the Americans were freed, Israel released a little under half of the prisoners. U.S. and Israeli officials denied any connection to the hijacking. From the 1970 Dawson’s Field prisoner exchange to the Iran Contra Affair, American presidents have long worked with allies to assuage terrorists and bring hostages home — despite maintaining, on paper, that they will never pay ransoms or make concessions to hostage takers.

This position has strategic and moral heft, and it leaves the door open to a surprising range of options. But the inconsistent, confusing nature of ransom policy and hostage recovery has fueled a circuitous debate: Should the United States pay ransoms? Arguments for and against making concessions fall into a space with limited data and towering emotional stakes.

Weighing in are two new books on captivity, which lend a fresh perspective on how to bring Americans home in the murky middle ground between stated U.S. policy and reality. Jason Rezaian’s Prisoner and Joel Simon’s We Want to Negotiate delve into the intricate world of hostage negotiation. They show what can happen when governments work to recover their citizens at any cost, reflecting on the costs borne by the United States for its ambiguous stance.

We Don’t Negotiate with Terrorists… Until We Do

Today, America may stand by its “no concessions” policy, but there are four ways in which it violates the spirit, if not the letter, of this prohibition. First, America tends to negotiate if the hostage taker is a state. Though there is a technical, legal distinction between hostages (those abducted by non-state actors) and detainees (those held by states), the line is blurred when Americans are taken for the express purpose of becoming a bargaining chip. The Barack Obama administration exchanged prisoners and political concessions for the release of Alan Gross from Cuba and Jason Rezaian and others from Iran. President Donald Trump seems to prefer trading photo opportunities for hostage freedom, granting summits and Oval Office recognition in exchange for detainees from North Korea and Egypt. In all of these cases, American prisoners were individual pieces of larger diplomatic deals.

Second, America negotiates if the hostage is a soldier. Captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was exchanged for five members of the Taliban, released from Guantanamo in 2014. Bergdahl’s case was controversial for several reasons, but few questioned the fundamentals: The Geneva Conventions provide for the release and exchange of prisoners of war.

Third, America negotiates if someone else is paying. U.S. law prohibits providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. A White House official even threatened the parents of slain journalist James Foley, who were desperate to recover their son from the Islamic State. Nevertheless, no American has ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom. Into this permissive environment step all kinds of third-party intermediaries, including other states and foreign nationals. For example, the FBI reportedly helped the family of American hostage Warren Weinstein pay a ransom to al-Qaeda by facilitating the payment through a Pakistani middleman. Qatar, well-known for its staggering ransom payments and terrorist financing, played a key, murky role in bringing kidnapped American journalist Peter Theo Curtis home.

Finally, the United States permits paying ransom as long as the hostage taker has not been designated as a foreign terrorist organization. Americans routinely pay legal ransoms to criminal organizations and other armed political groups. These cases are handled both by the U.S. government’s interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell and a vast network of kidnap and ransom insurance policies and crisis management personnel.

Thus, the U.S. government’s “no concessions” policy means only this: We will not give our money to a foreign terrorist organization to bring a civilian home.

Escape From Tehran: A Family Matter

Washington Post reporter and former Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian’s riveting memoir Prisoner tells the story of his unlawful detention in Iran. But this important, personal book is about so much more. Prisoner is simultaneously an homage to Persian culture, a heartwarming love story, a prison buddy comedy, and an insightful glimpse into high-level diplomacy. Rezaian seamlessly depicts his decades-long fascination with opening Iran to the world, fierce loyalty and love of his family, and harrowing first-person details of a journalist thrown into jail on false charges, held indefinitely and without cause.

The ordeal begins with a wild accusation: “‘You’re the head of the American CIA station in Tehran, [and] the odds are you will spend the rest of your life as our guest.’” Abducted by elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Jason and his wife Yeganeh (Yegi) are placed in solitary confinement for months without trial. He gauges that readers will “want to read about what it’s like to be isolated in one of the world’s most infamous prisons, how someone survives that, but you don’t really want to know. It’s a hard experience, designed to dehumanize and disjoint the subject from reality, and guess what? It works.” While Rezaian is spared physical torture, the narrative lays bare the psychological horrors wrought from the confusion, isolation, and monotony of his imprisonment.

And yet, Rezaian’s book never once belies his steadfast humanity or departs from his journalistic mission to help “the public make sense of nonsense.” It verges from the laugh-out-loud funny to the patently absurd, as he recounts being accused of plotting a great avocado conspiracy and tricking his guards into standing while he sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Prisoner is an excellent read for the pleasure of spending time with Rezaian, a generous, funny, and exceedingly compassionate soul whose resilience, curiosity, and honesty shine through every passage.

For those interested in U.S. hostage and detainee policy, the book provides critical lessons as well. Rezaian’s was a textbook case of a hostage taking disguised as a detention — his imprisonment became a bargaining chip in high-stakes international diplomacy, and his release reflects what America will do to bring these hostages home. Moreover, Prisoner shows how much family advocacy matters. From the moment of his arrest, Rezaian had unwavering support from his brother, Ali, and his employer, the Washington Post, who worked relentlessly behind the scenes — closing Jason’s email, hiring lawyers, meeting with experts — until the harrowing final moments of Jason’s 544-day ordeal. Ali traveled to Washington 20 times in 2015, and he met with “heads of state, arms dealers, journalists, and diplomats” in his dogged effort to bring Jason home.

Veteran human rights attorney Jared Genser and former hostages I have interviewed all agree: A determined family member clamoring for attention is the biggest predictor that the government will help the case. “Family engagement in Washington matters enormously,” Genser told me. “The sophistication of the family matters — and the families that make the most noise will get help.” A central component of the work by support organizations like Hostage US and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, as well as the Family Engagement Team at the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, is to make this process less arbitrary — creating a system of support that is available to all families in this devastating situation.

Questions of Causality in U.S. Hostage Policy

As the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon is often on the other side of these hostage-taking attacks — supporting families, promoting journalists’ safety, and advocating for hostages’ release. In his broadly researched new book, Simon travels the world to investigate the patchwork approach to hostage recovery — speaking to officials in Washington, Madrid, Paris, and London; learning the secrets of the trade from hostage negotiators and insurance personnel; and portraying the tragedies of grieving family members and former hostages.

Simon’s goal in We Want to Negotiate is to explore the justification for America’s “no concessions” stance to understand the policy’s efficacy, as well as the “moral and political consequences of providing funding to a terrorist organization.” He quickly uncovers enormous variation, even among close-knit allies: Some countries “take a hard line, and others are willing to talk” — a mixed strategy that generates terrible outcomes for all target nations. For example, Simon reports that the Spanish government directly negotiates with — and pays ransoms to — terrorists, which has saved hostages’ lives. “Every one of the estimated 70 Spaniards taken hostage by Islamist groups and Somali pirates have come home alive,” a record “… unmatched by any other country.” On the other hand, France is subject to massive public pressure to intervene in hostage crises, where a culture of public protests trains and maintains focus on bringing captives home. Simon reports that the French pay, but often through intermediaries. And he suggests that this has had a Barbary-like effect on future risk: “According to data provided by the French Foreign Ministry, the number of French nationals abducted overseas quintupled from 11 to 59 a year between 2004 and 2008.”

Beyond his interviews, Simon relies heavily on analysis of studies on hostage outcomes by the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, the New America Foundation, and the RAND Corporation, as well as a peer-reviewed article in the European Journal of Political Economy. While the first three studies conclude that the U.S. “no concessions” policy does not make Americans any safer, the journal article comes to the opposite conclusion, demonstrating that making concessions actually increases future kidnapping risk by 64 to 87 percent. Simon dismisses this latter finding, citing the study’s “sophisticated quantitative” methods used to analyze a dataset of kidnappings drawn from media sources, which he deems “… unreliable on such matters.” (He appears unconcerned that the other three studies also rely on media sources — using the same dataset with significant reporting flaws.)

Simon seeks to establish that the concessions policy doesn’t work because kidnappers don’t take the policy into account when deciding to take a hostage. The problem is that it’s exceedingly difficult to measure causality in a phenomenon like kidnapping. We cannot assume that kidnappers select their victims — and decide whether to kill them or demand ransom — at random, without first considering the victim’s nationality and their government’s ransom policy. The relevant country’s policy may be a critical determinant of the decision to capture. Though Simon and the studies he cites claim that kidnapping is opportunistic, what if the Islamic State had a highly selective targeting process, taking different captives for different needs? Patterns in ransom demands suggest this might be the case: European hostages were ransomed for several million euros each, while demands for Americans Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff exceeded $100 million. What if the latter demands were intentionally impossibly high? This would serve as a way to raise the stakes and attention, reaping the rewards of recruitment instead of cash. Simon seems to agree. Of the videos portraying hostages’ brutal beheading, he writes, “ISIS recruiters would track engagement with the content, and reach out via direct message on Twitter to anyone who reacted positively. In this sense the execution videos were worth far more to ISIS than any ransom payment they might have received.”

It’s impossible to ever really know, but asking perpetrators can shed light on motives. My research involves speaking directly to former kidnappers to find out why they did what they did. In dozens of interviews with ex-combatants from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for example, perpetrators affirmed that kidnapping targeting is highly selective, organized, and planned. In other words, their violence was not random or opportunistic. The FARC also claims to capture different targets for different reasons: those they call “economic retentions” for ransom, and “prisoners of war” for attention and political concessions. While the former almost always returned home after a ransom was paid, the latter faced much higher levels of violence and rates of death. In other words, a ransom payment might not be able to save a hostage intended for another purpose. The question of concessions’ efficacy must be secondary to understanding when and why groups make certain demands.

Changing the Debate

These books provide two key takeaways for improving hostage recovery and negotiation policy. Until now, a standard approach to hostage cases has been to limit options for recovering the hostage while increasing publicity as much as possible. The former could be “no concessions” policy or a set of hand-tying mechanisms, such as locking a family’s assets if they reported a kidnapping to the police. The latter assumes that sustained public effort can change kidnappers’ minds by educating them about the value of a human life.

Instead, Rezaian’s and Simon’s books point to a different approach to saving American lives at the lowest possible “price”: put more options on the table. More indirectly, they suggest the potential benefit of limiting publicity surrounding hostage taking.

As Rezaian depicts in Prisoner, his release was part of a massive diplomatic bargain, at a time of maximum U.S. leverage. Ultimately (and you should read the book and see for yourself), Jason and Yegi were released along with two other dual nationals (Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini) as part of the Obama administration’s broader Iran deal, the JCPOA. In exchange, the United States released several Iranian sanctions violators from U.S. prisons and agreed to pay a $1.7 billion settlement due from the days of the Shah. Senior U.S. officials, led by Brett McGurk, had negotiated for months, expanding the bargaining set until mutually acceptable terms were agreed. As Genser told me, the U.S. government was able to free Alan Gross the same way — putting more options on the table, framing it within a broader deal.

As any negotiator will tell you, it is easier to find mutually agreeable terms if you’re working with a larger zone of possible agreement. The 2015 update to hostage policies, codified through the Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-30) on hostage recovery, expands this negotiating range. PPD-30 states:

The United States may assist private efforts to communicate with hostage-takers, whether directly or through … intermediaries, and the United States Government may itself communicate with hostage-takers, their intermediaries, interested governments, and local communities to attempt to secure the safe recovery of the hostage.

The Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which has recovered more than 200 hostages since its inception in 2015, exercises a range of options, from facilitating criminal ransoms, to influencing the behavior of captor networks, and to engaging third-party mediators. As the cell’s former director Special Agent Rob Saale told me, “You can’t be a conventional thinker in this business. You need creativity and a willingness to think outside the box.” One of the greatest features of the fusion cell is that it brings together experts from the FBI, State Department, CIA, and defense and intelligence communities to deal with each kidnapping case. That collaboration is not just about getting all equities in the room, but also about combining a diverse set of perspectives to augment available options and find a new solution every time.

This lesson applies to both hostages and detainees. As President Trump told TIME, “We are aggressively pursuing the release of our people. We will leave no lawful tool, partnership or recovery option off the table.” The administration might bear in mind that leaving the JCPOA has only made it harder to recover Baquer and Siamak Namazi, and Xiyue Wang, American citizens still detained in Iran. As Genser notes, “Iran has never once granted a release spontaneously … or because they were bludgeoned.”

The second lesson has to do with the publicity of hostage cases. With the exception of notable media blackouts, the assumption has been that sustained attention will help bring a hostage home, because it will show the hostage taker that their captive is valuable. In fact, kidnappers abduct precisely because they know a hostage is an invaluable bargaining chip — and that some democracies would violate their core values just to bring a citizen home.

With this in mind, the U.S. government should work with allies, private negotiators, and the media to decisively lower the cost of any negotiation. Hostage takers know that the life of the hostage is valuable, but massive international publicity only raises their asking price. For example, Simon quotes a former French hostage on this matter:

[Malbrunot] also recalls the impact that [public protests] had on his captors. Several had initially proposed releasing the hostages after they determined that the two were bona fide journalists and not spies. But another group, seeing the mass protests in France, now believed that the hostages were too valuable to release without a big ransom … the ransom got higher and higher.

The lower the perceived value of the individual hostage, the more limited concessions the kidnapper will seek.

A massive advocacy campaign likewise called for Rezain’s release: Half a million people signed a petition on Change.org demanding his freedom, and a group of public intellectuals led by Noam Chomsky published an open letter to the Iranian regime. In the wake of this attention, Jason received far better treatment in prison — time in the gym, new clothes, conjugal visits with his wife. Undoubtedly, hearing about global support can boost a prisoner’s spirits. But it is the quiet, painstaking work behind the scenes that brings a prisoner home.

Such a quiet campaign can only work if citizens have faith that their government is being responsive to the family, exhausting all legal options to bring the hostage home. As Simon writes, “When citizens are taken hostage in Spain there are no committees, no banners hung from buildings, and no street protests. As the wife of one former hostage pointed out, there is no need to protest if you are confident the government is already doing all it can.” Advocates have suggested that their media strategies are not about getting the attention of the hostage takers, but of their own governments. If families receive constant, open attention from the government; if officials courageously explore every possible option, then perhaps hostages can come home at a bargain price.

Hostage taking is a global problem, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, a problem only exacerbated by changing technology. While hostage takers adapt to new conditions, policy debates remain stuck on the same question of ransom payment, missing how complex the U.S. position really is. No government has found a way to keep all its citizens safe at all times, and unless all parties agree, curbing ransom payments will not end the scourge of kidnapping. To do that, kidnapping groups will need to be disarmed or destroyed. In the meantime, at-risk individuals like journalists, aid workers, and maritime employees should receive extensive training to mitigate risk in the hope of reducing the “supply” of hostages. A British hostage negotiator once reminded me of comedian Spike Milligan’s words: “The only sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.”


Danielle Gilbert is a 2018-2019 Minerva/Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and a PhD candidate in political science at George Washington Universitywhere she is writing her dissertation on the logic of coercive kidnapping. This article was supported by a Minerva/Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar award from the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Image: U.S. Department of State