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I’ve been a hostage negotiator for kidnapped journalists like Daniel Pearl. Here’s what I wish everyone knew

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was kidnapped and then brutally murdered by terrorists in Pakistan on Feb. 1, 2002.

Danny’s death affected me deeply — his abduction on the way to an arranged interview at a Karachi restaurant, the kidnappers’ note that read more like a death sentence than a demand letter, his gruesome execution and the gut-wrenching video released three weeks after his death, in which he is forced to condemn American foreign policy and “confess” his Jewish heritage — shook my world.

We had met a few years earlier and discovered surprising things we had in common beyond our age: fewer than six degrees of separation. Only many years later did I learn that we shared yet another connection through our parents. Meeting Danny shaped my own life choices in ways I couldn’t yet fully appreciate at the time. Years later, when I found myself involved in cases of missing people around the world, my mind would always race back to Danny — his commitment to reporting the truth, his great promise, his intelligence and sense of humor, his effortless charisma, his impending fatherhood of a son he would never get to meet. He had, to borrow from the French author Romain Gary, la vie devant soi — a full life still awaiting him.

I have spent the past 25 years working in failed states through initiatives that usually involve mediation efforts in war zones and informal, track-3 diplomacy. Over the past decade, primarily as a result of the civil wars in the wake of the Arab Spring, I have acted repeatedly as a hostage negotiator when journalists and aid workers went missing in these war zones, in particular in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

This work has been heartbreaking not just because of the preponderance of terrible outcomes to these disappearances, but also because of the misguided and tragically uninformed actions of the missing persons’ families and governments.

Embed from Getty Images

The stories of kidnapped journalists in war zones often have eerily similar beginnings. Take, as an example, a case in Syria I worked on for six months. An American student studied Arabic for a few semesters in college, then moved to Damascus for a couple of years. He befriended Syrians from all over the country and improved his Arabic proficiency to the point where he could detect and mimic local accents and dialects.

He felt an urge to write about his experiences in the Middle East, wrote a few feature pieces and pitched them to various American magazines and newspapers. Unfortunately, none showed any interest, and he was beginning to have second thoughts about his career aspirations.

Just as he was about to give up on the whole journalism thing, violent protests erupted in Damascus, which quickly exploded into a full-fledged civil war. The aspiring journalist sensed an opportunity to launch his career as a war correspondent. After all, he was fluent in Arabic, had many Syrian friends and a nuanced sense of the country’s politics, history, culinary delicacies and behavioral mannerisms.

Once again, he approached American newspapers and magazines, eager to supply them with dispatches from the war front. Once again, his pitches were ignored. Eventually, he ran out of money and stamina and returned to the United States.

Back home, the young man couldn’t find his footing. His heart was still back in Syria. He wanted to write about the country, the war, the people, the suffering and also some rare moments of hope amid all the despair. He was sure that his reports would be too compelling to be ignored by the major newspapers. Desperate to try once again, he returned to Syria despite his family’s pleas.

He flew to Istanbul and traveled by bus to a small town near the Syrian border. He checked into a cheap hotel and started to look for drivers willing to take him to Syria, perhaps all the way to Aleppo, where he hoped to make contact with members of the Free Syrian Army and some aid workers. All the Turkish drivers shook their heads; even though they could use the money, none of them was crazy enough to make the trip.

On day three, two young Syrians who looked no older than sixteen approached the journalist. They told him that they had heard about his plans to go to Aleppo and offered to take him there for a modest sum. He ignored that little voice trying to warn him that perhaps this trip might not be such a good idea, and one hour later he found himself in the back seat of a Toyota, crossing from Turkey into Syria.

The two young men drove him straight to a house on the outskirts of a city called Azaz, and he was pulled out of the car by five masked men with automatic weapons. One hour after entering Syria, he was a prisoner of Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Thus began his nightmare, and the nightmare of his family back home in the United States.

After not hearing from their son in five days, the worried parents decided to call their local Congressperson. They were politely informed that the representative was busy with an important vote in Washington, but a junior staffer told them not to worry; their son would probably turn up in a few days with some great stories to tell.

A week later, there was still no sign of their son. By now, the parents’ apprehensions had turned into panic. They again called their representative as well as one of the State’s senators, whose assistant connected them with the staff of the President’s National Security Advisor as well as the State Department, which had an office with a promising name: the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

One of the State Department staffers recommended a public relations firm to the parents in order to handle all media inquiries. Journalist organizations got involved, and the parents were inundated by requests from newspapers and television stations who wanted to run stories on this kidnapped American.

A former American diplomat offered to reach out to people who might know someone close to one of the Gulf monarchies, which maintained unofficial contacts to Islamist groups in the Middle East and sometimes made ransom payments in ways that everyone could claim not to know anything about them — a rather helpful gesture considering the fact that it is illegal to pay ransom to hostage-takers that are members of a group that has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization, and even in cases not involving such groups, the United States officially and as a matter of policy never pays a ransom.

Before anyone with actual experience in hostage negotiations had a chance to weigh in and gather even a speck of meaningful information on the hostage-takers and their demands, the empathy industry kicked into action and a full-blown campaign was unleashed: several members of Congress and Government representatives issued press statements, followed by tweets, retweets and Facebook posts condemning the savage terrorist kidnappers and demanding the immediate release of the American hostage.

Television stations ran interviews with the heartbroken parents, begging whoever is holding their son to let him return home. There were T-shirt campaigns, bumper stickers and candlelit vigils in the journalist’s home town, and a prominent NGO announced they would award a “courage in journalism” medal to the young man at a gala event that would also serve as a fundraiser.

Only weeks later, when the devastated parents realized that all of these public statements and publicity stunts didn’t do anything to bring back their son, and after finally having things explained to them by a team of experienced hostage negotiators, did they realize how counter-productive all this media-driven noise has been.

There were two tragic consequences: the public condemnations just angered the group holding their son, and all the media hype only drove up the price tag for his release by convincing the hostage-takers that they were holding someone of immense value.

With much regret, the parents now understood that all those officials and advisors who kept on grandstanding with press statements and on social media were not only unhelpful but in fact detrimental to their quest for the release of their son. Sadly, the damage had now been done.

I was devastated when I received the verified information that this young journalist had been killed, just like Danny Pearl had been many years earlier. Months of grandiose public statements and a stream of self-appointed emissaries had convinced his captors that they had nothing to gain by coming to an agreement and releasing him, and everything to gain by holding out for a higher price and better terms.

In the terrorists’ eyes, he had transformed from a nameless nobody with limited worth to a VIP prisoner — a trophy Westerner with unlimited potential. But the very moment they realized that all the public noise had been meaningless, their prisoner’s value immediately sank to zero, as did his chances of survival. My call to his parents haunts me to this day.

The same scenario could happen, and unfortunately has happened, in any country ravaged by violent conflict. The moment an American journalist goes missing, the first step any experienced hostage negotiator will take is to impose a gag order on all public statements and try, quietly and discreetly, to find out which group is holding the hostage.

In the case of Syria, is it the regime or any of its closely affiliated Shabiha militias? In that case, it is senseless to inquire about the missing person because the only reply will be that the regime doesn’t have him but has heard that those terrorists — a catch-all term used by President Assad to describe all opposition groups — have captured him.

Or is it an Islamist group such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham, or any of the other gangs? In that case, it is critical not to inquire about what they want in return for the release, because once it becomes clear that their monetary or other demands cannot be met, the hostage’s chances of survival will drop precipitously. Or is it ISIS, which may want to trade the hostage for money, weapons, drugs or even other hostages, but may also plan to execute him for the shock value of grisly recruitment videos, as was the case with the gruesome killings of journalists and aid workers in late 2014 and early 2015? In that case, too, it is critical not to inquire about what is expected in return for a release before a clearer sense of the captors’ demands and expectations can be obtained through back channels, just like good courtroom lawyers never ask a question if they don’t already know the answer.

Every single step of a hostage negotiation needs to be calibrated carefully to the group holding the hostage — from finding out who it is, learning whether the hostage is still alive and obtaining proof of life, bypassing all the unsavory middlemen trying to make some money, all the way to negotiating the terms of the release and organizing the requisite logistics.

All these steps have one thing in common: publicity is never helpful. Here’s an easy triage for anguished families: all the people — public officials as well as private individuals — who broadcast their efforts and involvement, usually with empty slogans such as “I will not rest until this young American is brought back home safely” sprinkled in for good measure, should be avoided. Their primary purpose is to aggrandize themselves and display their righteousness. If they really cared about the life and safety of the hostage, they would listen to the professionals who implore them to shut up.

The entire tragedy also exposes another dirty little secret. Media companies are understandably reluctant to send their own correspondents into war zones. Instead, they rely on freelance reporters to take unfathomable risks and deliver dispatches from the front lines.

These freelancers are almost always completely unprepared for conditions of extreme danger and stress. They have not been trained on how to behave and survive in areas of combat and violence. Should they keep their passport on them at all times or leave it at a safe place? What about dual citizens — which passport should they travel with? How much cash should they carry around, and in which currency — enough for bribes but not too much to turn themselves into targets? What about electronics — smartphone or an old Nokia?

Where should they store their list of contacts with phone numbers and addresses, where their laptop? What about encryption software — will it protect their files or just anger their captors who will certainly try to access their bank accounts? Have they been taught how to establish a connection to a trusted security authority who can keep them safe or extract them, depending on who is in charge of the particular place?

Image by Getty Images

Journalists in war zones are, like most people, ill-equipped and untrained for the anguish they will experience once they are kidnapped. They will be overwhelmed not only by the mental, physical, and emotional abuse — the interrogations, the beatings, the torture, the mock executions — but also by every single facet of every single day in captivity.

They will be kicked into a completely different world for which nothing and no one has prepared them. It often takes them a lifetime to recover from the traumas they have suffered, if, unlike Daniel Pearl, James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Kenji Goto and far too many other journalists, they are fortunate enough to make it out alive.

From the lack of war zone training for these aspiring reporters to, once they are captured, the tragically flawed advice given to their families and the self-aggrandizing publicity campaigns by public officials and self-anointed advisors, journalists and their loved ones deserve better.

A lot better.

Daniel Levin is the author of Proof of Life: Twenty Days on the Hunt for a Missing Person in the Middle East

To contact the author, email [email protected].


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