Last weekend, 17 missionaries — 16 Americans and one Canadian — were kidnapped outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Kidnapping has become a regular occurrence in Haiti, the country with the world’s highest per capita kidnapping rate.
But even with rampant abductions, the targeting of foreigners is rare. As in other global kidnapping hot spots, the vast majority of kidnapping victims are local nationals. According to the Haitian Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights, less than 5 percent of kidnapping victims since January have been foreigners.
A criminal gang called 400 Mawozo, known for violence, kidnapping and extortion, reportedly took the missionaries hostage. The group demanded $1 million ransom for each hostage, and they’ve threatened to kill the hostages if the ransoms aren’t paid.
What happens next? My research on hostage-taking and recovery provides some answers.
Does the U.S. negotiate with kidnappers?
In a news conference earlier this week, NBC correspondent Kristen Welker asked how the Biden administration will respond to the ransom demands, “particularly in light of the policy that the U.S. does not negotiate with those holding hostages.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed, “that remains our policy.”
This exchange was somewhat misleading. In fact, U.S. policy explicitly allows negotiating with hostage takers. As the 2015 Presidential Policy Directive on Hostage Recovery Activities, now codified into law through the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, states:
“The United States will use every appropriate resource to gain the safe return of U.S. nationals who are held hostage … this policy does not preclude engaging in communications with hostage-takers. For example, when appropriate the United States may assist private efforts to communicate with hostage-takers … and the United States Government may itself communicate with hostage-takers, their intermediaries, interested governments, and local communities to attempt to secure the safe recovery of the hostage.”
As I have written before here in the Monkey Cage, the U.S. government not only negotiates with hostage takers, but frequently makes concessions to them, too. Rob Saale, the former director of the U.S. Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell — an interagency group — told me, “No concessions does not equate to no negotiation. The world is not black and white, and the people working these problems need every tool available to them.”
Will someone meet the ransom demand?
Hundreds of Americans are kidnapped abroad every year, and the vast majority return home after a ransom is paid. While the U.S. government would be unlikely to make the payment directly, the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, led by the FBI, would help facilitate the transfer of funds.
With the government’s help, the hostages’ employer would appear the most likely candidate to pay the ransom demand. As an international organization operating in kidnapping hot spots around the world, Christian Aid Ministries is likely to have a kidnap and ransom insurance policy in case any of its employees are taken hostage. These types of insurance policies cover the cost of the ransom payment, provide a team of hostage negotiation experts, and help insured organizations offset other unexpected costs.
Is a rescue mission a possibility?
A second possibility is that the U.S. government could conduct a hostage recovery mission, with or without the assistance of Haitian forces. While the FBI has its own specialists in the Hostage Rescue Team, most international hostage rescue missions are the purview of two military Special Forces units: the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy SEALs.
Rescue missions might seem like an attractive alternative to paying a criminal ransom — they have the potential to recover the hostages while punishing the kidnappers. Unfortunately, rescue missions are exceptionally costly. They require significant, accurate intelligence to conduct successfully, and these missions put service members at substantial risk. And rescue missions can create dangerous circumstances for the hostages as well: It’s during rescue efforts that captors are most likely to kill their hostages.
For these reasons, rescue missions are rare, typically launched only when a hostage’s life is in imminent danger — if intelligence reports show that a hostage is suffering from an illness in captivity, or if the kidnappers start executing hostages. At that point, the U.S. government has two official considerations in deciding to conduct a rescue mission: “risk to force” (the danger to the military forces going in) and “risk to mission” (the danger to the hostage).
Would public opinion play a role?
One last set of questions is who are the hostages, and what were they doing in Haiti? The answers could matter for how much the American public would possibly support efforts to bring them home.
As my research with Lauren Prather shows, whether hostages appear to have courted danger themselves affects whether the American public will support costly efforts to rescue them. Specifically, in our nationally representative survey of around 2,000 American adults, respondents were much less likely to support either U.S. military rescue missions or paying ransoms to recover hostages that had knowingly traveled somewhere against government guidance.
Haiti is one such dangerous location. The State Department’s most recent Haiti travel advisory, updated Aug. 23, explicitly warns Americans not to travel there. The warning is unambiguous — the U.S. government has designated Haiti a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” country, signifying the highest level of travel risk. Haiti’s travel advisory also features a specific “K” risk indicator, marking it as a country where Americans are very likely to be kidnapped.
While official U.S. policy does not consider the circumstances of capture in deciding whether — and how — to recover captured Americans, policymakers could face backlash for paying ransoms or launching rescue missions for hostages the U.S. public sees as responsible for their fate.
Editor’s note: The article has been updated with the correct name of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team.
Danielle Gilbert (@_danigilbert) is an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy and a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at U.S. Military Academy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force Academy, the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. Approved for public release, PA#: USAFA-DF-2021-344.