Why The US Should Negotiate With Terrorists In Hostage Situations

by John Haltiwanger

On December 6, two hostages were murdered by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen during an attempted US special forces rescue operation. One of the hostages was Luke Somers, a freelance journalist from the United States. The other was Pierre Korkie, a teacher from South Africa.

According to reports, the terrorists mortally wounded both hostages just moments before US special forces arrived.

The Yemen-based terrorist organization responsible for these killings is known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP is widely considered to be the most lethal and dangerous branch of al-Qaeda.

Following the events this weekend, US policy surrounding hostage situations is drawing scrutiny.

Simply put, people are beginning to wonder why the United States continues to refuse to negotiate with terrorists. When it comes to hostage situations, refusing to negotiate leaves some very poor alternatives and often leads to deaths that are arguably preventable.

Indeed, there are a number of credible arguments as to why America should change its stance on negotiating with terrorists.

The South African Man Killed During Rescue Operation Was About To Be Released

In a terrible twist of fate and miscommunication, Pierre Korkie was set to be released the same day as the failed US special forces rescue mission.

The South African government, much like the US, refuses to negotiate with terrorists.

Thus, a group of South African civilians has been working hard to secure the release of Pierre. Initially, he was captured with his wife, Yolande.

Fortunately, this group of of civilian negotiators was successful in freeing Yolande back in January. Then, in the past month or so, they received confirmation that the terrorists would release Pierre for $200,000. They agreed to the payment and he was scheduled to be released on December 6.

Tragically, just hours before he was scheduled to be freed, he was mortally wounded by his captors as US special forces arrived to rescue his cellmate, Luke Somers.

As Rukmini Callimachi notes for the New York Times:

United States officials say they did not know that Mr. Korkie was about to be freed, revealing the dangerous disconnect that can occur when civilians are left to negotiate hostage releases on their own.

When civilians are left to negotiate with terrorists without government assistance, it can have deadly consequences.

In truth, however, hostage rescue operations have a high probability of failing, regardless of the circumstances. This also goes to show that if civilians were able to arrange for the financial release of one hostage, the US government definitely could have done the same for both.

Hostage Rescue Missions Are Dangerous And Unlikely To Succeed

Over the past two years or so, more and more Americans have been taken hostage by terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Sadly, these hostages are often murdered if the terrorist's demands are not met. We have witnessed this quite recently with ISIS and the release of gruesome videos featuring the beheadings of American hostages, among others.

Unfortunately, the probability of hostages being rescued is very low. We learned this lesson once again over the weekend.

In order for a mission like this to succeed, there has to be an element of complete surprise. On Saturday, it appears that something alerted the terrorists to the presence of US commandos, possibly a dog barking. Consequently, the terrorists took action.

Even though the American soldiers left the compound with both Somers and Korkie in tow just 30 minutes later, they were already wounded beyond repair.

This is how these kinds of operations typically go. In the past several months alone, the US has carried out three failed rescue attempts of American hostages.

The operation on Saturday was actually the second failed attempt to free Somers in 10 days. President Obama knew the risks when he approved of the rescue mission over the weekend, but there was evidence that Somer's life was in imminent danger, which is why he gave the go ahead.

In July, a mission to rescue James Foley and Steven Sotloff also failed. Both were eventually beheaded by ISIS.

Correspondingly, Shane Harris of the Daily Beast highlights:

Hostage rescue experts and military officials say these raids are extraordinarily difficult to pull off because they depend upon accurate intelligence and superb timing, two things that are difficult to come by in a war zone.

Despite recent failures, the US government has said that it will not review its policy surrounding terrorists and hostages. In essence, it will not consider paying ransom.

Yet, perhaps the US should take a closer look at what its allies are doing and its own history.

US Policy On Negotiating With Terrorists Has Been Inconsistent And Hypocritical

It's fair to argue that paying ransoms encourages kidnappings and helps finance acts of terror. One might argue that giving into the demands of terrorists appears weak, and also lets them know they can get away with blackmailing governments.

Part of the reason the kidnapping of Westerners in the Middle East has increased is that it's proved to be a lucrative enterprise.

ISIS is already worth $2 billion.

Since 2008, at least $125 million in ransom money has been paid to al-Qaeda, and that's just from the kidnappings that have been reported.

From this standpoint, it makes sense as to why the US would not want to pay ransom.

The US government is so against paying ransoms that it has even told private citizens it's illegal to negotiate with terrorists in this regard. In fact, this is exactly what the FBI communiciated to the family of beheading victim James Foley when ISIS first demanded money for his release.

Yet, it's apparent that many other countries are not of the same opinion. The only other options are to allow hostages to die, to suffer in captivity or to stage dangerous and likely doomed rescue missions.

This is precisely why so many European countries have turned to giving in to the terrorist's financial demands. Yet, due to US policies and the stigma attached to such actions, the governments in these countries have had to do this under the radar.

It's also true that the US supplies weapons to governments and militant groups in the Middle East that often end up in the hands of ISIS and the Taliban. If America is so concerned about the prospect of assisting terrorists financially with ransom money, perhaps it should reassess this strategy as well.

What's more, it's also completely false and quite hypocritical for the US to say that it "never negotiates with terrorists."

President Obama negotiated with the Taliban earlier this year when coordinating the release of Sgt. Bowe Berghdahl. Furthermore, in 2009, American authorities traded the release of a Shiite cleric accused of killing America soldiers for the release of a British citizen, Peter Moore, being held by Iraqi militants.

Likewise, President George W. Bush once paid $300,000 in ransom money to a radical Islamist group that had captured two American missionaries in the Philippines.

There are also well-documented instances of other former presidents negotiating with terrorists.

Simply put, the US needs to be honest about both its history and the consistency and effectiveness of this supposed policy.

It may be a matter of principle to refuse to negotiate with terrorists, but it's already been done, and it has the potential to save American lives.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Elite Daily

Citations: Statement by the President on the Death of Luke Somers (The White House ), Homeland recap With Saul held captive Carrie has no good choices (LA Times), Drone Wars Yemen (New America Foundation ), American journalist killed in failed Yemen rescue attempt (USA Today), AQAP (Council on Foreign Relations ), Yemen hostage rescue US wont review raids policy (BBC ), British hostage in Iraq Peter Moore is released (The Guardian ), The US Does Negotiate With Terrorists (Foreign Policy), Ransom Arranged to Rebel Group (ABC News), We Should Negotiate With Terrorists We Always Have (The Daily Beast), Paying Ransoms Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror (The New York Times ), Why the US swaps prisoners but doesnt pay ransom (The Hill), For James Foleys Family US Policy Offered No Hope (The New York Times ), Did US Policy Get Luke Somers Killed (The Daily Beast ), Al Qaeda murders American hostage during US special forces rescue attempt (Vox), The death of Luke Somers and why hostage rescue missions often fail (The Washington Post), At 6 Awaiting Hostages Release After 8 Learning That Hes Dead (The New York Times)