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How to bring hostages home? There’s no simple answer.

Journalist James Foley, pictured in 2012, was kidnapped and held hostage in Syria, where he had been covering the civil war. His Islamic State captors killed him in 2014.
Journalist James Foley, pictured in 2012, was kidnapped and held hostage in Syria, where he had been covering the civil war. His Islamic State captors killed him in 2014. (Nicole Tung/

Jason Rezaian is a Global Opinions writer for The Washington Post and the author of “Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison — Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out.”

I never took it personally when the Islamic Republic of Iran abducted me in 2014 and used me as a hostage for 544 days. True, the impact on my loved ones — and my own lasting scars — is deeply personal. But the officials in Tehran who raided my home and imprisoned my wife and me were not so much interested in us. They grabbed me because I was a Washington Post reporter and an American citizen, and because of that I represented something of value to them. I understood that very early in my ordeal.

I was less sure about this: What, if anything, would the U.S. government do to bring me home?

This is the awful question that hostages and their families ask themselves. And as Joel Simon expertly explains in his new book, “We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom,” there is no consensus about how to respond to an ancient practice that has made a terrible resurgence in the post-9/11 era.

When foreign governments or terrorists or gangs take a human hostage, they transform him or her from a person into a piece of property. That hostage’s government then must decide: Should it pay ransom? Should it refuse to engage? Or should it follow some other tactic? The response speaks volumes about that nation’s values — and it’s a good predictor of whether the hostage will survive.

Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, is well suited to explaining this modern phenomenon. Working for more than two decades with the group, he has advocated on behalf of hundreds of journalists taken hostage, including me, and has come to a difficult conclusion: There is no single answer on how to respond.

Simon identifies three important factors that affect the likelihood of a safe return: “Does the hostage have kidnapping and ransom insurance? Was he or she kidnapped by a criminal group? Is the victim a national of a country that pays ransom?”

If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, there is a good chance the individual will come home in one piece. But if the answer is “no” to all of them, survival rates drop dramatically. “If kidnappers are not making it on the money front, they will start making political demands, or sell hostages to terrorists,” Doug Milne, a pioneer in kidnapping and ransom insurance — K & R for short — tells Simon. “It’s much better to resolve them as commercial cases.”

But others believe paying ransoms is a bad idea. Paying a terrorist group, a crime syndicate or one of the growing number of governments that practice hostage taking incentivizes the behavior and encourages its continuation.

David S. Cohen, President Barack Obama’s anti-terrorism guru, articulates the core paradox a nation like the United States faces. Simon quotes a speech Cohen gave in 2012: “Refusing to pay ransoms or to make other concessions to terrorists is, clearly, the surest way to break the cycle, because if kidnappers consistently fail to get what they want they will have a strong incentive to stop taking hostages in the first place.” But Cohen also recognizes that “not to pay ransom to terrorists is to jeopardize innocent lives.”

Governments base their hostage response policies on previous experiences and the political cost of past cases. History is littered with hostages who were left to die, sometimes in horrific fashion. That’s because while hostage recovery is always a government’s priority, it’s never the top priority. Simon offers the heartbreaking example of James Foley, a journalist who was taken hostage in Syria by the Islamic State and ultimately executed despite the efforts of his mother, Diane Foley. James’s brutal death came, it can be argued, in large part because of the U.S. government’s lack of a coordinated strategy for securing the release of American hostages.

Throughout her son’s long captivity, Diane Foley kept pushing the U.S. government to do more to bring James home. “She believed it was only President Obama himself who could cut through the bureaucratic infighting and ‘make things happen,’ ” Simon writes. Indeed, that dynamic was at work in my case. Several months into my imprisonment, a secret channel was set up to negotiate my release and that of other Americans in Iran in exchange for the freedom of several Iranians in U.S. prisons. Such arrangements do not happen without the U.S. president’s knowledge and approval.

Simon provides a vivid critique of Washington’s official position: “A no concessions policy is only credible if governments are willing to let hostages die to make the point that they will never give in,” he writes. But the U.S. government is not consistent in its approach to hostage recovery. Look no further than the outcomes for American hostages in North Korea and Iran. Three Americans held in North Korea were released on the same day that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang, while several Americans, lacking official visits, still languish in Iranian prisons.

Some of our close European allies, by contrast, have clear policies for handling hostage situations. In Spain, for instance, there is no need for public outcry because Spaniards expect that the government will do whatever it takes to bring hostages home. Such was the case in 2009 when Spain paid for the release of aid workers taken by al-Qaeda in northern Africa.

Simon probes the question of whether the media should be used to raise awareness of a hostage’s plight. He details cases, like mine, in which news outlets have worked to compel a government to do everything in its power to retrieve a national. In discussing Foley’s situation, he notes that even with public awareness, the hostage was murdered.

But press coverage possibly makes a hostage’s confinement a little less horrific. “A hostage who matters in the eyes of public opinion . . . becomes more valuable and will be better treated by his captors,” Florence Aubenas tells Simon. Aubenas, a French war correspondent who was taken hostage in Iraq in 2005 and freed five months later, is now a leading advocate for French hostages. Bringing the plight of hostages to the public has another effect. Remembering them “is defending their integrity, and honoring a certain ideal of freedom of the press and democracy.”

Reading the many cases Simon explores in the book, I was reminded of my discussion with a government psychologist after my release. I asked him how progress was measured in the healing of a liberated hostage. He smiled and said, “Jason, I’ve handled a lot of returning captives, and there’s one thing I’ve learned.”

I leaned forward, ready for the key to recovering my old spirit. “If you’ve seen one case,” the doctor told me, “you’ve seen one case.”

No government has found a way to prevent hostage-taking, and the practice is getting more widespread. But this is one area where the Trump administration has had some success. Andrew Brunson, a pastor detained in Turkey, was released in October 2018 after the United States imposed sanctions and tariffs. Joshua Holt, a Mormon missionary, was freed in May 2018 after nearly two years in a Venezuelan prison following separate meetings by two U.S. senators with President Nicolás Maduro.

But a question still nags: Those releases came at what cost? For no hostage is ever freed for nothing.

By Joel Simon

Columbia Global Reports. 189 pp. $15.99 paperback