Tuesday morning the Islamic State delivered their second “message to America” in the form of the pitiless beheading of young American journalist Steven Sotloff. The video quickly spread online—as did an almost-identical one capturing the medieval-style execution of James Foley two weeks previously. At the end of the clip “Jihadi John,” ISIS’s now-famous executioner, named his next target—British-national David Cawthorne Haines.
I’m not sure anyone can remain unaffected when confronted with the macabre form of propaganda ISIS has spread over the last few weeks. These events have led many to take a closer look at the U.S. government’s policy on negotiating for the lives of American hostages and to ask hard questions. Could Foley and Sotloff’s deaths have been prevented? Is the Islamic State getting exactly what it wants in the form of spreading its message and inspiring new recruits? Is there any hope for the other hostages?
For me, my family and our larger community these events have also brought back to life the sickening fear we lived with for over two years: that my two fellow captives and I—imprisoned as political hostages in Iran from 2009-2011—could have met the same fate.
Reflecting on my own experience as a hostage—as well as the year I spent after my release involved in secret negotiations between Oman, the United States and Iran to procure the release of my two fellow-captives—I believe that negotiating with terrorist organizations, or a hostile government out to punish the United States, is never black and white. A careful equation must be considered in each situation: what ripple effects will result from any concessions given by the United States? Will inaction lead to a more deeply entrench conflict—more violence and death—or will the problem go away on its own?
Syria has been the most dangerous country in the world for journalists for the last two years, with at least 70 killed, 80 kidnapped and 20 still missing, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Islamic State is known also to be holding at least two American humanitarian relief workers: a 26-year-old woman, who was working in a hospital near Allepo when she was captured in 2013, and another man—both of whose names have not been reported for their own protection.
In the case of this unnamed, young American woman, the Islamic State has asked for $6.6 million ransom in exchange for her life. They’ve also asked for the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a MIT-trained Pakistani neuroscientist who is serving an 86-year sentence in Texas for trying to kill two U.S. officials (The Siddiqui family recently released a statement saying they are “traumatized by the thought that someone else could be harmed in the name of Aafia” and have sought to distance themselves from ISIS.) Most likely the only chance for this woman’s life to be saved is for the U.S.—either directly or through a third party—to negotiate a ransom or prisoner exchange for her release.
Much has been made of the fact that the European Union won the release of over a dozen of its own citizens held captive alongside Foley by paying ransom to the Islamic State. One way to explain their decision is that European countries value the work that their journalists and humanitarian workers are doing in the Middle East enough to safeguard it. By opting to pay ransom, these government are not only honoring the work being done by their citizen’s in conflict areas, but also ensuring that it will continue—that others will take the necessary risks in order to bring us the context and information we need in order to react intelligently to the unfolding crisis in the Middle East.
The most frequently sited argument against paying ransom is that by doing so you fund terrorist organizations and create an incentive for groups like ISIS to capture more Americans. There is no doubt in my mind that this argument holds weight. Still, there is more to consider. After over a year in isolated, incommunicado detention in Iran, during which I was never tried in court or allowed to meet with my lawyer, I was released to the Omani government in exchange for half a million dollars “bail”—in actuality a thinly veiled ransom. Regardless of who pays it, ransom is ransom. What’s the quantitative difference in paying ransom directly as opposed to through a third party when it comes to creating incentive and/or rewarding hostage taking?
The reality is that the U.S. government does negotiate for the release of U.S. hostages, and they clearly do this because they decide the benefits outweigh the risks. I know for a fact that in my own case Oman was asked to mediate on our behalf directly by the US government. Another recent example is payment of ransom by the government of Qatar for the release of journalist Theo Curtis held by terrorist group Al-Nusra. The U.S. denies giving Qatar permission to pay the ransom but is it rational to think that Qatar would risk the consequences of acting alone?
In addition to the lives at stake, it’s crucial to look at the ripple effects that the Islamic State’s sadistic propaganda can and will continue to have. The collective trauma created by these barbarous acts is impossible to imagine, both in the U.S. and in the Middle East. What future repressive policies will these killings be used to justify? How much are these videos, and the heinous acts they portray, escalating the likelihood of all-out regional war? If nothing else, perhaps a prisoner swap or third-party ransom paid to the Islamic State is worth it in the overall equation simply to prevent ISIS from having any more material.
I’m by no means arguing that paying ransom or exchanging prisoners is always the right thing for our government to do; it’s a delicate calculus that must be taken case-by-case. Still, if we can spare these two other Americans the worst death imaginable—coupled with the knowledge that the last image their friends and family will have of them will haunt them for the rest of their lives—I believe we should. Perhaps if the US government had been more flexible, and honest, about its no-ransom policy, it never would have gotten to this point. Maybe we have another opportunity to do this right.