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This Era of Hostage Diplomacy Requires New Answers

Hostage taking is as old as time, but today the world faces new tactics and unprecedented challenges; what can be done?
Israeli supports show placards with the faces and names of people believed to be taken hostage and held in Gaza. Play Podcast

About the Episode

From Hamas to Russia to Iran, hostage-taking is on the rise once again and hostage diplomacy has entered that arsenal of foreign policy tools by countries around the world. This week, Northwestern University’s Dani Gilbert guides us through what is new, what has worked and failed in the past, and why countries need new ways to respond to hostage-taking today.

[Brian Hanson: INTRO: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs— going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I’m your host, Brian Hanson, with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

On today's episode, we are discussing a crucial and timely topic – hostage taking and hostage diplomacy -- a practice that has persisted throughout history and involves the use of hostages as a means to achieve political or diplomatic goals. 

It's a complex issue, and one that demands our attention and understanding, especially in light of recent events. With the world's eyes on the war between Israel and Hamas, hostage taking has been brought into sharp focus. Further, there is the recently negotiated deal to release 5 wrongfully detained US citizens by Iran, and the case last year of Russia’s wrongful detention of WNBA star Britney Griner and resulting prisoner swap to obtain her release. Many listeners will remember with revulsion the hostage-taking and gruesome murders of captives by Al-Queda and ISIS during the war on terror. So, how do we understand hostage taking, who employs it to achieve what, how the use of this tactic evolved, and what can be done to address this global challenge and the heart wrenching strategic and moral dilemmas that are created.

To explore these issues, I am joined by Danielle Gilbert. Dani is an assistant professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, and her research explores the causes and consequences of hostage taking, including rebel kidnapping, hostage recovery policy, hostage diplomacy, and even ransomware. Now, Dani says that hostage taking has been around as long as the written word...]

Dani Gilbert: It's in the Code of Hammurabi, the Bible, and the Koran, but it's taken off in a dramatic way over the last century, particularly in the 1970s, when armed groups all around the world used airplane hijackings and embassy sieges to gain attention and to coerce concessions. So, starting in the late 1960s and throughout the decade of the 70s, rebel groups and terrorist groups in lots of different parts of the world, whether that was Latin America or the Middle East, were holding embassies hostage, were hijacking airplanes, as often as once every five and a half days. But it was incredibly frequent.

Brian Hanson: And this is like thousands of people. Right? I mean, I grew up in the 60s and the 70s and I remember this on the news and the scale was just enormous…

Dani Gilbert: Thousands of people, a typical airplane hijacking would take hundreds of hostages, even in just one event. And this was an almost weekly occurrence for about a decade. Hostage taking changed starting in the 1980s and then continued to evolve through the 90s and early 2000s, when rather than hold airplanes hostage or embassies, armed groups instead started using kidnapping as their form of hostage taking. Where they would abduct an individual and take them to a new, unknown location. And there are some benefits for armed groups to switching to this surreptitious mode of hostage taking, but also for them some downsides. So, it's harder for them to gain the kind of attention that they might have received with an airplane hijacking, but they could hold hostages for much longer and they did not have to worry as much about their own safety. In the most recent decades, that has changed once again. So, with portable internet devices like the iPhone and the invention of YouTube, armed groups could now combine the publicity seeking dimensions of an embassy or a hijacking siege with the benefits to them of the security of a kidnapping. So, now armed groups can kidnap individuals and still publish and publicize their videos to great attention all over the world. There's been one more big change in the trend of hostage taking in recent years, which is over the last decade, as the United States and our allies have shifted away from the global war on terror and back to what the Biden administration is calling great power competition, that hostage taking has moved once again from the realm of surreptitious kidnapping to what I call hostage diplomacy. Wherein, autocratic states use their criminal justice system to hold foreigner’s hostage.

Brian Hanson: I want to pull out kind of what some of the responses were and what has been accumulated in terms of the repertoire or approach to trying to manage these situations. I'm old enough to remember when there were no metal detectors at airports when baggage didn't go through security. And that all was in response to this challenge. Can you talk a little bit about what were the measures that were employed in response to this set of hostage taking and hijackings? And to what extent were they effective at the time in securing the goals of the people who perpetrated them?

Dani Gilbert: So, airplane security was precisely a measure to deal with this spate of airplane hijackings. There used to not be anything. You didn't have to go through a metal detector or x-ray or anything like that. And in the early years of these frequent airplane hijackings, there were very serious conversations about how to deal with this ongoing and quite problematic form of terrorism. And the airplanes fought against it. They did not want to impose security in the airports because they thought it would inconvenience their customers.

Brian Hanson: And it does, as a matter of fact, they're not wrong about that part.

Dani Gilbert: I don't think anybody enjoys taking off their shoes and limiting, you know, how much water they can bring on a plane, but it was tremendously effective in curbing this trend. We almost never see airplane hijackings anymore. And so, it went from something that was in the headlines on a weekly basis to something we almost never see.

Brian Hanson: The other thing that happens at this time, that you've written about, is there is a UN convention in 1979 against hostage taking. Can you talk a little bit about what's in that? What was it trying to achieve? And what was successful about it and what wasn't?

Dani Gilbert: So, in 1979, was the launch of the UN International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages. It came right at this time of the peak of airplane hijackings and embassy sieges as hostage takings. And it was an effort by the international community to wrap their heads around this phenomenon, to define it, to once again criminalize it, and to talk about how to deal with punishing perpetrators. So, hostage taking even before 1979 is considered illegal in international law. It is a war crime. It is not ever legal by any means in conflict. And the 1979 Convention formally defined it, got the international community to agree on a definition of what hostage taking is, and outlined which countries are responsible for trying to recover hostages and for the ability to punish perpetrators. It actually spread across different countries who might be able to pursue justice in the case of a hostage taking, that it's not only the country where it occurred, but also countries whose citizens had been taken hostage as well.

Brian Hanson: It's interesting. So, some of the rescue efforts and all that emerged during this time too, I would think could be in line with that kind of sharing of responsibilities. So, one of the things that I remember about the eighties, were the hostage takings where tactics switched a little bit, and you know, I remember very vividly the discussions about whether or not one negotiates and offers concessions to terrorists, right? I remember a speech of Ronald Reagan's in which he says, Americans will never make concessions to terrorists and basically arguing once you start going down that path, there'll be no end to the ransom that people pay. You have written about this idea of no concessions and both say this is a misnomer, many people assume that it's US policy and it's, not nearly as broad as people assume and it's inherently doomed to fail. Can you talk about what is actual US policy here and why this approach, which intuitively makes a ton of sense, right? If you reward people who engage in this activity, they're just going to do more of it. And why it doesn't work?

Dani Gilbert: So, as you laid out, a number of US presidents have talked about a so called no concessions policy with Nixon, with Reagan, both responding to airplane hijackings and their unwillingness to make concessions publicly in that moment, all the way to President Obama. It was something that the Obama administration talked about in the wake of the Islamic State kidnappings in 2013 and 2014. So, this is something that US presidents have long talked about and something that the vast majority of the American public assumes to be true. But what I can tell you is that no concessions applies only to a very, very narrow set of cases. And it means that the US government will not pay a monetary ransom directly to an armed group that the US government has designated as a foreign terrorist organization. So, the FTO, Foreign Terrorist Organization, list is a list of armed groups maintained by the US State Department. It is up to US policy at the moment who is on that list and who is off that list. And the reason that the policy applies specifically to armed groups on that FTO list is that paying a ransom to such a group would constitute material support for terrorism. In other words, it's like making a donation or a payment to a terrorist group, which is illegal under US law. So that is explicitly prohibited and was a large part of the conversation when Americans had been kidnapped by ISIS and by Al-Qaeda, who had been designated as terrorist organizations, and the US government was not only refusing to pay but threatening to prosecute families if they tried to pay themselves. Now, as far as I know, and as far as anyone will tell me, there has never been an American who has been prosecuted for making a ransom payment, but given that was the specific US policy, we can understand why policymakers might have shared that message with hostage families. What that means is, that in any other type of hostage taking scenario, whether the perpetrators are not on the FTO list, either because they are armed groups not considered terrorists or because they are state actors, or if the concession is something different then a monetary ransom paid directly to the group, there is no current prohibition on the US government making such a concession. And so, across these cases, across decades, we have seen the US government and lots of other governments all around the world make a wide range of concessions, and specifically through pursued negotiations. So, in 2015, in the wake of the Islamic State kidnappings and beheadings of American journalists and aid workers, the Obama administration conducted a massive policy review to evaluate what went wrong with US policy in dealing with these cases and try to coordinate across agencies better. They set up a number of institutions in the US government but one of the things that that policy review said explicitly is that the US government welcomes negotiation and welcomes conversation with any hostage taker. So, there is very explicitly now, not only no prohibition, but also an encouragement of pursuing those conversations.

Brian Hanson: And one of the reasons for that, as I understand it, was that there was an attempt during the War on Terror to coordinate with other European allies, to not negotiate with hostage takers and a perception that with ISIS, the people who were killed were citizens of the United States and the UK, which were less willing to negotiate, whereas some of our other allies, France, Spain, and others, who were willing to negotiate. Their hostages were successfully released. Is that an accurate understanding and does that give us kind of insight into why this kind of no concessions, no negotiation approach, just isn't successful?

Dani Gilbert: That's exactly right. So, if we think back to the ISIS kidnappings, it was not only Americans who were taken, but journalists and aid workers from lots of other countries around the world, many Europeans as well as Japanese hostages. And there were dramatic differences in the outcomes for the hostages based on their country of nationality, which a lot of people have argued is because of the variation in hostage recovery policy. So, at the time that all of these Westerners were kidnapped, there was a meeting of the then G8 in the UK, and all the leaders signed a communique saying, we will not pay ransom to terrorist groups to get our citizens home. They all signed it. They did a big press release about it. And within months, several of the signatories had paid ransom to the Islamic State to get their citizens back. So, one of the problems with the no concessions policy, is that as we've been talking about it has never really existed. Another problem with a no concessions policy is that it depends on collective action. It depends on coordination across all the different people who could possibly pay, refusing to pay. And that becomes exceptionally difficult when it's different countries, different allies, different institutions who might always have an individual incentive to pay up when it is their citizen or their loved one whose life is on the line.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, absolutely. Something that has been in the media occasionally, but I don't think is very well understood broadly in the American public, which is the fact that states are using, quote, wrongful detention in order to gain leverage with other states. And as I understand it is a very widespread and in terms of people who are being held hostage currently, there are more people being held by states than by any other entity. Can you talk about this phenomenon? Where this is happening? What are the motivations? Is it successful? And how widespread it is?

Dani Gilbert: So, this is the phenomenon that I would refer to as hostage diplomacy when states are effectively using their laws to take foreigners hostage. And we might ask how that could possibly be a hostage taking. It's someone who is arrested often of breaking a country's laws and they go through a trial and they're held in prison. And so why would I refer to that as a hostage taking? Well, it actually goes back to the 1979 International Convention and their definition of hostage taking, which is that hostage taking is detaining and holding and threatening to continue to hold someone in order to exact behavior change on the part of a third party. And so, someone breaking a law and being arrested, they're usually not a bargaining chip in diplomatic concessions in some sort of exchange or deal. We normally expect that they would be held in prison, serve out their sentence, and then released. But that's not been the case in these hostage diplomacy cases. So, over the last decade, the families and organizations inside and outside of the US government and many of our allies have said that what used to be the vast majority of cases that they worked on were non state actors, were rebel and terrorist kidnappings, criminal kidnappings, has now shifted to what they refer to alternately as hostage taking, wrongful or unlawful detention. Some countries are referring to this as arbitrary detention, which also has a UN definition. And so, people are coming around to different names and definitions of this phenomenon, but it is largely the same idea, which is that a foreigner is arrested and held explicitly or implicitly for leverage. So, we've seen that happening in recent years in Russia, in Iran, those are probably the two most attention grabbing sets of cases right now, in China and in Venezuela, in North Korea and in Myanmar or Burma. And so, those are the cases that the United States has designated as countries where this phenomenon is likely to occur to American citizens, but it's also been happening in increasing numbers to British citizens, Canadian citizens, Japanese citizens, Australian citizens, and a lot of dual nationals from those countries as well because those countries don't recognize dual citizenship.

Brian Hanson: And is there a pattern in the kind of demands that are made of the countries whose citizens have been taken in this way?

Dani Gilbert: In some ways, it is thankfully too small a set of cases to make a compelling, causal, empirical argument about that, but the trends appear to be going in a particular direction, which is that states like Russia and China, the more powerful states in the international system, are typically demanding exclusively prisoner swaps, one for one or one for two, they are using these cases as leverage for a prisoner exchange. Whereas some of the less powerful countries, and particularly Iran, has been pursuing it this way, has not only been holding Americans for prisoner swap leverage, but also for much broader economic and diplomatic concessions tying prisoner released to much larger diplomatic deals.

Brian Hanson: And what would be an example that?

Dani Gilbert: Earlier this fall in the beginning of September, the United States and Iran agreed to a massive deal to release five American citizens that had been held in Evan prison in Iran, many of them for years and years, the longest held hostage had been in Iran since 2015. So, to release those five wrongfully detained Americans, as well as their family members, who had been prevented from leaving Iran on travel bans, in exchange for Iranians held in US prison, as well as, opening up the ability of Iran to use 6 billion dollars that were held in South Korean banks, facilitated by Qatar, in order for Iran to access those funds for humanitarian purposes. And so those were funds that had been siphoned off due to sanctions against Iran and the international system. And so, not only was that a prisoner swap, it was also a much larger economic deal. This is reminiscent of the 2015 JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which people refer to as the Iran deal, the large international agreement to loosen sanctions on Iran in exchange for some concessions related to their own nuclear program and though it was not the headline grabbing part of that deal, that deal also included the release of several hostages, including Jason Rezaian, who was then the Washington Post bureau chief in Tehran and is now a leading advocate on this issue.

Brian Hanson: So, with this kind of transition in the patterns of hostage taking and wrongful detentions, arbitrary detentions, which are being perpetrated governments, you've pointed out that the Biden administration has actually tried to take some actions in order to respond to this. Can you talk about what they have done and why they chose to do those things?

Dani Gilbert: One of the things that the Biden administration has been quite public about is its commitment to deal with these individual cases and to bringing home Americans who've been held hostage or wrongfully detained. They have recovered dozens of Americans held hostage abroad over the last handful of years, and at the same time, they are trying to wrap their heads around how they can simultaneously bring people home and prevent the hostage taking of Americans going forward. So, if we take the no concessions logic seriously, the idea would be that we shouldn't make concessions not only because it's distasteful to reward our adversaries, but also because making concessions incentivizes the next hostage taking. And we've already talked about why that logic might not always really hold up. And so, what's the alternative? If we have to make concessions in order to bring today's hostages home, what kinds of costs can we impose on hostage takers to prevent the hostage takings of the future? So, the Biden administration has taken a couple of concrete first steps to prevent future hostage taking, they have first focused on travel warnings for American citizens they have released a new special warning for those countries with the label of the letter D, which means for wrongful detention. So, you would see that if you go to the State Department website. And I hope that they will continue to educate the public about the dangers of traveling to certain places. And they are working on a series of sanctions against anyone who is responsible for or complicit in the wrongful detention or hostage taking of an American citizen abroad. So, this is not just sanctioning the state leader or some of the entities that might already be facing a ton of US sanctions, but effectively anyone who has played a role in one of these cases. The idea being that threatening to punish or punishing people all throughout the chain of command in a hostage taking or wrongful detention case might dissuade people from participating in these acts in the future and find a way to punish them. And then the last thing is that the Biden administration is working closely with allies in the UK and Canada to think about what it might mean to re-approach hostage taking like that international convention in 1979 and think about ways to pursue this going forward.

Brian Hanson: These are obviously steps forward and respond to some of the things that you've talked about. If people don't travel to these countries, it's harder to take hostages. If there are greater penalties on people who are involved in the hostage or wrongful detention process, then that might discourage people or deter people from doing this. Is there more that can be done and that should be on the agenda?

Dani Gilbert: So, I'm actually part of a group that is working on this at the moment. So, I am a member of a bipartisan commission housed at the CSIS think-tank in Washington DC. And we are working together over the next year or so to create a set of policy proposals either for the second Biden administration or whomever is the next president of the United States with our recommendations for dealing with hostage policy going forward, and while some of that exploration will deal with intergovernmental coordination and within government coordination on these issues, a big part of what we are trying to brainstorm and figure out is how else might the United States and allied governments deter this practice going forward. So, we are thinking not only about prevention and education strategies of the American public, how can we make sure that more people know about these travel warnings and think twice before taking these risky travel opportunities, but also what other kinds of creative deterrence and punishment mechanisms might exist. And one of the central propositions that's shaping our conversation is that every adversary is going to be deterred in a different way. And what I mean by that is that US policy to prevent and deter hostage taking is going to look different when we're talking about Russia and China than it will with Iran or Venezuela or any of the other countries pursuing this practice.

Brian Hanson: I want to shift gears to the most recent and really disturbing, hostage situation that we've all been watching, which is in association with Hamas’ horrific and brutal attack on Israel and the taking of hundreds of people, and you've got a really fascinating piece that's linked in our show notes about how this is different than typical patterns. How is this different from what Hamas or other groups have done in the past? What are the key differences?

Dani Gilbert: So, at the moment, as we record, there are an estimated over 220 people being held hostage in Gaza. They are from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. They are from a wide range of countries and nationalities all around the world, and they are almost certainly all being held in different places and maybe even by different actors. So, if we compare it to an airplane hijacking that might have had a hundred or two hundred passengers on board, all of those hostages were being held by the same perpetrator in the same known place. Or if we think about hostage takings, kidnappings that happen over the course of a conflict, it might be a small handful of hostages who are kidnapped one at a time. So, the quintessential case that a lot of people are talking about was the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in 2006, Gilad Shalit. Held for five years by Hamas and was ultimately released in 2011. In exchange for the release of 1027 prisoners from Israel, the vast majority of whom were Palestinian, many of whom went on to become leaders of Hamas and key perpetrators in the attack on October 7th. So, Hamas knows that the Israeli government, in the past at least, has been willing to engage in a massive prisoner swap. Hamas knows that the Israeli public is quite sensitive to hostage taking issues. And so, at least in the past, they know that hostage taking has, in a sense, worked for them. I don't know if they intended to take as many hostages as they did and the kinds of hostages they did. And one of the things that has been particularly striking to me about this hostage taking and what makes it different is the wide number and range of vulnerable hostages who were taken. This is not just soldiers. This is not just able bodied middle aged adults. We are talking about children and babies. We are talking about senior citizens, who not only are incredibly sympathetic to an audience watching this horror unfold but are also challenging hostages for the hostage taker. So, if we start from the premise that hostage takers have to keep their hostage alive in order to coerce concessions, to be able to return someone home and healthy at the end of the day, they actually prefer to have hostages who are healthy and robust and easy to keep alive in what is exceptionally difficult conditions of captivity. So those are some of the striking differences in this hostage taking for me.

Brian Hanson: And do you have a sense of what Hamas is trying to accomplish? Is there a strategy here? Was it just simply deterrence? If they hold these people, Israel won't attack. What's the best understanding of what might be happening?

Dani Gilbert: So, I can't say definitively, though I am watching it very closely, and every day the additional information and updates that we get help me try to piece together a better picture of what's happening here. So, we've heard at least two plausible reasons from Hamas about why they wanted to take hostages the first, as you mentioned, which is effectively using them as human shields not to coerce concessions, but effectively to threaten to kill a hostage and put that execution video on television for any unannounced Israeli missile strike. And to date, that has not come to pass, thank God, but that remains in fact a possibility. The other is that Hamas, might be attempting to use at least some of the hostages for more prisoner swaps, to release more Palestinians held in Israeli prison. And whether that is a prisoner swap for some or a particular type of hostage, like women and children, or if they intend to use all the hostages that way. We do know a couple of things about Hamas's strategy and plans for hostage taking because of the information that has been coming out as some hostages have been coming home. So, for instance, Hamas has released two senior citizen Israeli women, and one of them, Yocheved Leibschitz, immediately did press interviews. And she talked about all of the different roles and care that she was getting from the hostage takers. So, it emphasizes to us their desire to keep her alive, that they had doctors trying to make sure that she wasn't going to die. And also suggests that is probably part of why Hamas released those two elderly female hostages is because the care was getting too difficult. We've also seen that Hamas, definitely intended to take hostages. The Israeli military has found documentation left over from planning the October 7th attack that talked about the goal of taking hostages. And so, whether they thought they would be as quote unquote successful as they were, they definitely intended to bring some hostages home. I think the most important thing for me at this moment is thinking through the way that hostages resemble and represent time. So, hostage taking unfolds over long periods of time. If someone dies, they die once and they die immediately, maybe, in a conflict like this, but if someone is held hostage, they are on the news and in our memories every moment of every day with the idea that the Israeli government or the international community could be doing something to try to get them home. Hamas is similarly trying to buy time, that the longer they hold hostages, the idea might be that it has at least delayed or maybe prevented some Israeli attacks and the fact that we are still seeing proof of life videos of hostages speaking from captivity and just the other day, an Israeli soldier who was rescued from captivity in a military operation suggests that many of these hostages are probably still alive, and what Hamas wants to do with them remains to be seen.

Brian Hanson: I know this is an unfair question because it's a crystal ball question but does this activity by Hamas suggest that there could be a new chapter evolving in how certain political actors are thinking about the potential for hostage taking and what that act can be used for?

Dani Gilbert: Hostage taking strategies are almost like a whack a mole problem. As soon as you deal with the airplane hijackings, then kidnappings start happening. As soon as kidnappings start to decline, then you see autocratic rulers taking hostages through their criminal justice system. My fear about ransomware is that ransomware is going to become an increasing form of hostage taking going forward in the future. And so, it very well might be shifting in its form back to what we saw even just a decade or two ago. Or, if it ends up having negative consequences for Hamas, if they are not able to use their hostages to the effects that they want as a group, if the Israeli military rescues hostages, if this brings destruction against Hamas, then others hostage takers around the world might look at this and see it as a dangerous and not worthwhile proposition.

Brian Hanson: Dani Gilbert of Northwestern University -- I want to thank you so much for being on Deep Dish to help us understand hostage taking, the strategies that are employed by different nations to address hostage diplomacy and the implications these approaches. Thank you so much for being here!

Dani Gilbert: It was an honor to chat with you. Thank you so much for having me.

[Brian Hanson: OUTRO: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish.  

A reminder that we want to hear more from you, our listeners. So, send us an email or, better yet, a voice memo, to -- You can suggest issues you’d like us to cover, guests you’d love to hear from, or you can just let us know how you think we’re doing.    

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As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode is produced and edited by Kyra Dahring and mixed by Frank McKearn of Aphorism Productions. 

Thank you for listening. I’m Brian Hanson and we’ll be back next week with another slice of Deep Dish.] 

About the Experts
Assistant Professor, Political Science, Northwestern University
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Danielle Gilbert is an assistant professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. Her research explores the causes and consequences of hostage taking, including projects on rebel kidnapping, hostage recovery policy, hostage diplomacy, and ransomware.
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Brian Hanson
Former Vice President, Studies
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Brian Hanson served as the vice president of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He managed the Council's research operations and hosted the Council's weekly podcast, Deep Dish on Global Affairs.
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