On Nov. 13, the Trump administration’s top official for hostage recovery said that a journalist kidnapped in Syria six years ago is probably still alive. Austin Tice, a Marine Corps veteran and war reporter, was abducted in August 2012 by suspected supporters of the Syrian regime. He was last seen publicly in a hostage video released a month after his capture, blindfolded and under duress. Despite years of silence, the FBI is still pursuing leads, including offering a $1 million reward for any new information on the case.
While we hear about high-profile cases, kidnapping is more common than we think. It is a global problem, particularly for local civilians in conflict zones. In fact, less than 10 percent of all hostages are foreign nationals.
What else do we know about the dynamics of global kidnapping? Here are five things to know:
1. A quarter of rebels, terrorists and paramilitaries have kidnapped.
Using data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) and the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), my research examines how kidnapping patterns vary in violent, political groups around the world. The GTD includes only attacks with a political or terrorist motive: These attacks must have a political goal, intend to coerce or intimidate a larger audience, and/or fall outside legitimate acts of war. Therefore, these numbers reflect a small and specific sample of violence that does not include the glut of purely economic or personal kidnappings that occur every day.
About a quarter of such groups take hostages.
About a quarter of groups in every region of the world take hostages. The following chart shows the proportion of groups with at least one incident of kidnapping in the Global Terrorism Database, divided by region. Groups that operate in several regions — transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, Black September and the Japanese Red Army — are even more likely to kidnap.
2. Kidnapping is frequent and widespread.
The global database shows more than 11,000 individual kidnappings from 1970 to 2016. Though political groups frequently took hostages through hijackings and embassy sieges in the 1970s, kidnappings have since become the most common form of hostage-taking violence. The numbers have skyrocketed since 2000. The map below shows the number of kidnappings perpetrated by political groups in each country, using GTD data.
3. … and it’s underreported.
Colombia illustrates this well. For example, the GTD includes 325 instances of kidnapping by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) between 1976 and 2015. The FARC was among the world’s most prolific kidnappers, behind only the Islamic State (500 kidnappings) and the Taliban (636). But from fine-grained, within-country data from Colombia, we know the FARC kidnapped more than 30 times this number during the conflict.
The following chart shows the dramatic difference between kidnappings recorded by the GTD and Colombia’s National Center of Historical Memory.
Why might kidnapping violence be underreported? For several reasons. Some groups want publicity for their attacks; others emphasize secrecy and operational security. Some countries have enacted laws that discourage reporting. In the United States, Colombia, Italy and Mexico, such laws range from automatically freezing families’ bank accounts when they report a kidnapping to prevent them from paying a ransom, or threatening prosecution if they do pay to bring someone home.
4. Ransoms help finance terrorist groups.
Officials from the U.S. Treasury Department have warned time and time again: “Ransom payments are the greatest source of terrorist financing today.” Al-Qaeda affiliates took in $125 million in ransom payments between 2008 and 2014. The FARC brought home an estimated $1.25 billion between 1993 and 2012. It’s no surprise that the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called hostages an “easy spoil… profitable trade and a precious treasure.”
Leaders of what was then the Group of Eight countries have pledged not to pay ransoms. But there’s significant evidence that countries cheat when their own citizens’ lives are on the line. France, Spain and Switzerland reportedly are Europe’s worst offenders, paying tens of millions of dollars to recover their citizens from hostile groups.
5. Most kidnapping victims survive.
Here is the good news: Most hostages survive captivity and return home. That’s true of more than 90 percent of Colombia’s 40,000 hostages, and 85 percent of al-Qaeda hostages. Even among the hostages who seem most at risk — Westerners kidnapped by Islamist, pirate or other militant groups — more than 80 percent are released.
Danielle Gilbert is a 2018-2019 Minerva/Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and a PhD candidate in political science at George Washington University, where she is writing her dissertation on the logic of coercive kidnapping.