Sotloff Execution Raises Queries Over US Hostage Policy: non-negotiation remains the correct approach

The execution of Steven Sotloff by Islamic State (IS) terrorists, following on from the recent beheading of fellow journalist James Foley, raises several awkward queries about the way in which the United States deals with hostage and ransom situations. The US, along with the UK and several other countries, refuses to negotiate any deal with terrorist organizations.

The fate of remaining Western hostages under IS control has become more certain after the execution of Sotloff
The fate of remaining Western hostages under IS control has become more certain after the execution of Sotloff


Several European countries, meanwhile, despite denials, are thought to have paid for the release of their citizens when held by foreign terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

Pragmatically, US foreign policy generally deals with hostage situations in the appropriate manner. Whilst the temptation to pay a ransom to secure the release of innocent civilians, desperately missed by their loved ones, is undoubtedly strong, these prisoners are usually aware of the risks taken when entering areas where terrorist organizations are active.

Paying for the release of a captive gives the terrorists an enhanced capacity to purchase sophisticated weaponry and equipment from any seller unscrupulousness enough to deal with them. This only increases their threat to global security in the long run.

Exchanging prisoners, as the US recently discovered in the case of Bowe Bergdahl, can also be strategically suspect. The Taliban prisoners exchanged for Bergdahl, a likely deserter, have probably since rejoined the ranks of the Afghan insurgents.

Kidnap and hostage-taking for ransom has always been used as a political and economic tool. Whereas in this day of easy travel any citizen is a potential target for political kidnap, historically hostages have been taken from the ruling classes and military who would more frequently travel abroad. A particularly significant coup would be the kidnap of a monarch, whose divine status would virtually ensure that a ransom was paid.

For instance, after capturing King John II at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, the English demanded a huge sum of money and massive territorial concessions for his release. When the French refused to comply, the English launched a renewed invasion before lowering their demands which were eventually met. This resulted in France ceding most of its western provinces to its enemy, whilst virtually bankrupting the treasury at the same time. It would prove a crucial turning point in the Hundred Years’ War and, in a sense, ensured its longevity.

Likewise, after his capture at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, Francis I was only released after his government ceded territory to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Simultaneously, Francis’ sons were involved in the part exchange and were themselves taken prisoner.

Francis I surrenders at the Battle of Pavia
Francis I surrenders at the Battle of Pavia

These examples come from a time when to not pay a ransom for a ruler would have been unthinkable. Yet the paying of these ransoms had huge ramifications for the fortunes of the states involved and, from a detached viewpoint, they would arguably have been better served risking the execution of their rulers.

Several states, including the US, tend to approach modern hostage crises in this way. Rather than paying a ransom, they seek other avenues of release, notably covert military operations. This is how German and American forces sought, and failed, to deal with the hostage situations in Munich in 1972 and Iran in 1980. It is also how the US attempted to extricate James Foley before his execution and how it has saved the lives of other captives.

US hostages in Iran during 1979. The advent of mass media has been used by kidnappers for emotive effect
US hostages in Iran during 1979. The advent of mass media has been used by kidnappers for emotive effect

Whereas state actors that take foreign hostages are potentially open to negotiation (as a way of achieving some concessions without irreparable damage of their reputations), terrorists rarely are. Indeed, the possibility that their demands are met and the hostages still executed is a likely one.

Therefore, the US is pursuing a correct, if difficult to stomach, policy towards terrorist hostage crises. Nothing should force negotiations with barbaric, bloodthirsty hoodlums. Nothing should be provided to enhance their capabilities. No incentive should be given for further kidnapping of innocent people.

It has, and will continue to lead, to unwanted bloodshed but it is a necessary approach to countering an unforgiving enemy.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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