Politics & Policy

Holding Us Hostage

Speaking their language.

The recent mania for hostage taking in Iraq reminded me of an exchange I had with one of my professors in grad school. We were discussing the Iran-Contra hearings, particularly the secret attempts to bring Iranian influence to bear on the terrorist groups that held a half dozen Americans. I brought up an alternative crisis-resolution model. In September 1985, four Soviet diplomats in Beirut were kidnapped by members of Hezbollah. One of them, Arkady Katkov, was shot in the head, and the rest were imprisoned. The terrorists wanted the Soviet Union to bring pressure on Syria to stop giving military support to a rival militia group. The situation was similar to that the United States, France, and other countries faced vis-à-vis the same Iranian-backed Shiite militants. But the Soviet response was different. Working with Syria, the KGB tracked down three young relatives of the Hezbollah leader. The Soviets then, so it is said, mutilated one of the men and sent body parts to the terrorists with a promise that the other two in their care would be treated similarly unless their people were released. That evening, the three diplomats, emaciated, unshaven, barefoot, and wearing dirty track suits, appeared at the gates of the Soviet embassy. Problem solved.

Naturally, I was not suggesting we go the mutilation route–what I admired was the unwillingness of the Soviets to accept the boundaries Hezbollah had tried to establish. Maybe in our face-off with the terrorists we should have abducted some their people, particularly family members, and leveled the playing field. But the professor took issue with my argument:

Professor: “We can’t do things like that.”

JR: “Why not?”

Professor: “We’re a democracy.”

JR: “So what? Foreign terrorists acting abroad have no rights under our law.”

Professor: “But if we did something like that and it became known, the public would not stand for it.”

JR: “The public would love it. Who are their heroes? Guys like Rambo and Dirty Harry. The American people just want the job done. They won’t question success. If Ollie North had pulled off something like that and brought our people home, there would have been no need to keep it secret. President Reagan could have announced it in prime time.”

Professor: “But what about the investigations?”

JR: “There would be no investigations.”

Professor: (Silence)

I was not the only one thinking that way back then, and certainly not the most influential. After the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front, during which disabled American Leon Klinghoffer was shot in his wheelchair and thrown overboard, Donald Rumsfeld called terrorism a form of “outright warfare” against the United States. He called for vigorous action against terrorists on their home ground, which at the time meant moving against their state sponsors as well. Sixteen years later, al Qaeda and the Taliban discovered what the Rumsfeld Doctrine entailed.

Recent communiqués from al Qaeda have discussed the possibility of taking hostages to exchange for terrorists held in Guantanamo and elsewhere. This is a switch for the terrorists, who in recent years have usually taken prisoners as the prelude to ritual execution. The practice probably shows the influence of the Chechens, for whom it is customary. The Danny Pearl kidnapping and murder is the most noted example. This senseless and brutal act, recorded in grisly detail (and the entire video has not been shown publicly) was meant no doubt to frighten, but only had the effect of increasing our anger. However, before 9/11 al Qaeda knew the value of using hostages as a medium of exchange. This is noted in the recently declassified August 6, 2001 PDB; in 1998 al Qaeda discussed hijacking an American aircraft to exchange for Omar Abdel-Rahman, “spiritual leader” of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The technique was used on an Air India flight hijacked in December 1999 and taken to Kandahar. Among the three fellow travelers the terrorists got released was Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh–mastermind of the Danny Pearl murder, now in a Pakistani jail awaiting execution.

Hostage taking, like other forms of terrorism, is a weapon of the weak. It is aimed at our emotions, and thus at our national will. Above all, hostage taking seeks to humiliate. It plays better on television than killing people, because it produces images that are more sympathetic, and the event can last much longer than a single news cycle. It gives producers something to storyline and build catchphrases around. The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80, for example, persisted long enough to make Ted Koppel’s career. Luckily, the recent spate of hostage takings shows no coordinated media or political strategy. They seem to be random actions taken by small groups of independent actors. The tale of kidnapped journalists Stephen Farrell and Orly Halperin is noteworthy–the group that took them captive was talked out of killing them by a wiser band of terrorists who knew it was bad form to murder reporters. It tends to bias the coverage. The Taliban on the other hand made it a practice to slay any journalists they caught–they were nothing if not sincere.

The terrorists may be trying to recreate the conditions of the late 1970s, in which a hostage crisis helped bring down a president, or the mid-1980s, in which another nearly achieved the same effect. But these are different times. We now acknowledge what we chose not to admit then, that we are at war with terrorism. That alone changes our perspective and broadens our options. Our leadership will not let the hostage takers set the parameters of the situation. We can of course communicate with the terrorists–I would not call it “negotiation,” that would lead to a lot of Democratic chest-beating. But talking to the enemy is a valuable way to collect intelligence and try to stabilize the situation while working on other solutions. The actual resolution would involve something more active–rescue, counter hostage-taking, psychological operations, coercive diplomacy, enlisting the assistance of friendly tribal leaders (something we should be doing as a matter of course anyway), or other forms of action. If the terrorists kill our people before we can get them back, we establish our credibility by hunting them down the way the Israelis did with “Operation Wrath of God,” aimed at the Palestinian Black September terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and were also responsible for the 1973 murder of U.S. Ambassador to Sudan Cleo Noel Jr., and charge d’affaires George Curtis Moore, among others. Nice how Israel did not let political correctness get in the way of naming that operation.

Yet does not have to end that way. We should make it known that if the hostage takers choose to release their captives unharmed and surrender they can enjoy all the benefits of due process in the new Iraqi justice system. After all, we are not savages; the terrorists are.

And in case you were wondering, the professor in question has since come around to my way of thinking. Not that I am taking credit.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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