How to free hostages: war, negotiation, or law-enforcement?

Mary Kaldor
28 August 2007

The eruption of hostage–taking onto the agenda of international politics and the lives of ordinary citizens worldwide – both those directly affected and those consuming the phenomenon via the media spectacle – is not itself new. But while past incidents like the 444–day United States embassy crisis in Iran from 1979–80 and the seizure of westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s could be understood as particular outgrowths of defined security crises, hostage–taking in the era of “war on terror” has acquired new and more disturbing aspects that reflect the changing relationship between war and politics.

Chechnya and Iraq reveal this new reality at its most brutal. The siege at Beslan, North Ossetia was only the latest in a tragic series (Budyonnovsk 1995, Moscow 2002), while the proliferating kidnappings of foreign personnel (journalists, aid workers, contract employees) in Iraq suggest a pattern of behaviour that reflects not just the agency of individual radical groups but a deeper political and even moral disorder in which all those who witness it are at some level implicated.

To understand what is happening, and how we – citizens, governments, families, NGOs, media observers – can best respond to hostage–taking requires an assessment both of the difference between “old” and “new” wars and of the main existing strategies used by states in the light of “best practice” in the field.

A rose in the black garden

I remember visiting Baku, Azerbaijan, as part of a Helsinki Citizens Assembly delegation, in the middle of its war with Armenia over the status of the disputed territory of Nagorno–Karabakh in 1992. A Russian builder approached us and asked if we could help find his son who had been taken hostage in Armenia. We travelled with him to the border and spoke to the local authorities. They told us that the builder’s son had been taken hostage by a family in Armenia, who refused to release him until their own son – who had been taken hostage in Azerbaijan – was released; indeed they described a long chain of hostage–taking.

They suggested we talk to a former KGB agent on the other, Armenian side of the border. We negotiated a temporary ceasefire so we could cross the border; our Armenian and Azeri interlocutors knew each other well from before the war and seemed bewildered by what was happening. When we arrived on the other side we were greeted by the KGB agent, wearing military fatigues and Rayban sunglasses with a silver cross round his neck. We exchanged the names of the missing young men.

This particular story had a happy ending. The Helsinki Citizens Assembly committees in both Azerbaijan and Armenia were able to use the information we had collected to put pressure on the authorities on both sides; on 12 May 1994, hundreds of hostages were released in the border area where we had crossed.

But in other wars, the hostages are not lucky. At best, they are ransomed for money, weapons or even dead bodies. But they are also dragooned into fighting, raped or mutilated, kept in captivity for years, or are killed in often macabre ways.

A third way of war…

Contemporary wars are quite different both from the classic wars of the past where soldiers fought against fellow–soldiers, and even from the more recent “small wars” where the adversaries are at least recognisable combatants, like guerrillas or paramilitary units. In this new form of warfare, battles are rare, most violence is inflicted against civilians, and the distinction between war itself, organised crime, and violations of human rights is increasingly blurred.

These wars are transforming the relationship between politics and violence: rather than politics being pursued through violent means, violence becomes politics. It is not conflict that leads to war but war itself that creates conflict. The insurgent or terrorist combatants try to establish political control by killing or intimidating those who are “different” – politically, ethnically, religiously. This generates fear and hatred among all the social groups involved.

Population displacement, mass rape, the destruction of historic buildings and symbols, are not side–effects of war – they are part of a deliberate strategy. Actions of spectacular violence – beheading, the chopping off of limbs, the destruction of 16th century mosques (as in Banja Luka, Bosnia) or of Buddhist statues (as in Bamiyan, Afghanistan) – are designed to highlight and give reality to the idea of holy war, an epic struggle between good and evil.

These wars are usually fought in what have become known as “failing” or “failed” states. In the absence of tax revenue or state sponsors from abroad, finance for these wars is raised through violence – looting, pillage, “taxation” at checkpoints, illegal trading. Many commentators argue that this abnormal political economy becomes a self–sustaining system and a motive for continued violence.

Chechnya and Iraq offer current examples of how in practice, politics and economics become blurred in these new wars. In Chechnya, Russian generals buy oil drilled by Chechen warlords from backyard oil wells, and sell their own higher–quality oil for a profit on the open market. In Iraq (as in former Yugoslavia) hundreds of criminals released from prison use the cover of war to continue criminal activities which they can now justify in political terms.

At the same time, political militants, former regime officials or religious fanatics, become involved in crime to finance their activities. Failed states are often former authoritarian states, where the shadowy activities of former political leaders and officials have come to the light, but without a political transition that allows the society as a whole to establish security and come to terms with past violations.

Hostage–taking is a typical expression of this blurring of the political and economic. Much of it is undertaken for profit. Many family members of the Iraqi elite have been taken hostage for ransom. The Italian government reportedly paid $1 million for the freeing of two Italian aid workers, Simona Parretta and Simona Pari.

Sometimes hostage–taking is motivated by political instrumentality – to get prisoners or other hostages freed. In the case of the French journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, it seems that the goal was better media coverage for the insurgency. The status of the journalists has reportedly been changed – in an echo of the experience of Jo Wilding in Fallujah in April 2004 – from hostages to “embedded reporters” with the insurgency.

In other cases, hostage–taking is part of a wider strategy involving spectacular violence that captures the attention of the media as well as terrifying the local population. The killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, the mutilation of children in Liberia and Sierra Leone, or the bizarre atrocities of the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda seems expressly designed to invest shockingly horrific violence with a non–human and therefore religious significance.

At the time of writing, it appears that the case of the British civil engineer, Ken Bigley, belongs to the latter category. The head of the group (Tawhid & Jahid) holding him, Abu Musab al–Zarqawi, is a religious fanatic in the Osama bin Laden mould (indeed, one interpretation of his actions is that he may be trying not simply to emulate but to “succeed” the al–Qaida leader). He employs Qur’anic terms like “raids” or “plunder” that deliberately seek to place his actions in the context of a history of jihad. Beheading – inflicted on Bigley’s two American colleagues, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley – is propagated as the ritualised slaughter that early Islamic warriors inflicted on infidels.

…needs a third strategy in response

Hostage–taking, as well as being the subject of a United Nations convention, is an international crime – something different from both war and politics. In response, neither military pressure nor political negotiations are appropriate tactics. Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, is using the hostage crisis to claim that everyone has to choose the side of democracy against terrorism. The more shocking the behaviour of al-Zarqawi and his cohorts, the more he can put on his concerned face and explain why the terrorist challenge demands a forceful reaction.

But this is exactly what al-Zarqawi wants. He wants a war of the west against Islam, in which there is no space for democrats who are critical of the west and no space for Muslims who are horrified by violence, hostage–killing and suicide–bombing. He may indeed hope that the Americans will bomb suspected places where he might be hiding and that many people will be killed as “collateral damage”.

But if polarising rhetoric from western leaders like Tony Blair plays into the hostage–takers’ hands, nor should there be any political negotiations. Contacts with groups who can act as intermediaries (like the Council of Muslim Clerics in Iraq) may be part of a necessary attempt to save lives, but those who argue that conceding the hostage–takers’ demands would strengthen and legitimise the kidnappers are right.

What is needed is a third approach beyond militarism and concession: one based on law–enforcement. Rather than defeat the hostage–takers in war or negotiate with them, the police must make systematic efforts to uncover their hideaways and arrest them. This approach requires a political and moral strategy aimed not so much at the kidnappers themselves but at the local population, especially those living in the immediate neighbourhood where they operate.

The aim should be twofold: to deny the hostage–takers local support, and to create a situation where local people both believe it is right to give information to the authorities and feel safe in doing so.

This was the strategy of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly committees in the south Caucasus during the Armenia–Azerbaijan war of the early 1990s. They tried to engender a political and moral atmosphere where hostage–taking became less acceptable because local people themselves refused to allow their local area to become a favourable environment for hostage–taking.

This experience suggests that the approach adopted by Ken Bigley’s family is probably the best in the circumstances: inviting spokesmen of the Muslim Council of Britain to visit Iraq, talk to local dignitiaries, and leaflet the area where he is being held. But more needs to be done. The United States–led coalition’s continued bombardment of urban areas and maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners – both involving terrible suffering by innocent civilians – make Iraqis less likely to condemn hostage–taking. The kidnappers themselves make gleeful use of the argument that the west itself holds “hostages” in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

Although Ken Bigley may well be alive, it may prove impossible to save him; al-Zarqawi is a fanatic who probably wants to prolong the media attention for as long as possible. But the approach adopted to try to free him is the best way to deal with the hostage phenomenon in general – one that combines police primacy in arresting criminals with a strategy aimed at gaining the confidence and support of local Iraqi people. Unfortunately, what Blair defines as a second conflict in Iraq – understood as one between the forces of good (coalition troops and the puppet Iraqi government of Iyad Allawi) and evil (Abu Musab al–Zarqawi and his accomplices) – is just what the hostage–takers want to legitimise their criminal activities.

What do you think? Is Mary Kaldor right to put hostage–taking in the context of new wars and failed states, and to advocate a law–enforcement response? Please post your response to our debate forum, or email [email protected]. If you use your real name, we could publish your contribution in a future “best of debate” selection.


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