-Executive Summary-

Following the beheadings of Western hostages by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014, concern for the safety of American citizens held hostage abroad shifted hostage policy dynamics. As part of this shift, the question as to whether the United States is doing enough to secure the release of American hostages has been extensively discussed by policymakers and among scholars. Still, the issue of ransom payments has received less attention. One perspective in this field of research argues that ransom is a quick means to bring American hostages home safely, whereas another perspective argues that paying ransom encourages future hostage taking. As the government continues to maintain a no-concessions U.S. hostage policy stance while brokering deals such as prisoner exchanges through third-party countries and other concessions to secure the release of American citizens, the question remains, What is the appropriate response for securing the safe return of American citizens within U.S. hostage policy?

To assist in resolving the impact of ransom on duration in captivity, this research answered the following questions: How effective are ransom payments in minimizing the duration in captivity for American hostages in hostage situations involving or including American citizens? If ransom payments are effective, should U.S. hostage policy be adjusted to encourage such payments? This research provides insight into resolving hostage situations via ransom payments through an analysis of high-profile historical hostage-taking incidents using a theoretical framework presented by Philip Gosse, allowing those executing U.S. hostage policy to evaluate and deploy the appropriate response within civil, diplomatic, and military guidelines of U.S. hostage policy.[1] In addition, a quantitative analysis on the impact of ransom on duration in captivity provides insight into the effectiveness of ransom relative to current U.S. hostage policy options.

The research finds that effective negotiations in hostage situations requires understanding the hostage taker’s purpose: their objectives and motivations. Comprehending these objectives and motivations prior to addressing hostage situations assists in establishing effective dialog for resolving hostage negotiations. Accordingly, U.S. hostage-policy options are driven by the objectives and motivations of the hostage taker, which fall within the three phases of hostage taking—phase one: substance or criminal; phase two: profession or political; and phase three: independent state or pathological.[2] As countries have struggled internally, such as Somalia during the Somali pirates, Iran during the Iranian revolution, and Afghanistan through the ​Soviet–Afghan War and for decades following the war in the Middle East, hostage-taking organizations begin to form out of survival, starting the first phase of hostage taking. The progression of hostage-taking organizations is dependent on their successful transition into the second phase, profession, and potentially the third, an independent state. U.S. hostage policy options to resolve hostage situations is dependent upon the stage in which the hostage taker is in. As hostage-taking organizations advance through the phases over time, resolving hostage situations becomes complex, limiting U.S. hostage policy options when negotiating with groups that have progressed beyond motivation by monetary gains, the first phase, and desire for political concessions, the second phase. In the third phase, an independent state, monetary gains become ineffective as political demands and propaganda become the primary objective of hostage taking. Complicating hostage situations further for the United States is the current increase in government-detention hostage situations, posing a new threat to American citizens held hostage abroad as mechanisms for release expand beyond the limitations of U.S. hostage policy options.

The answers to the research questions are as follows:

How effective are ransom payments in minimizing the duration in captivity for American hostages in hostage situations involving or including American citizens?

Results from this research show that ransom is effective in decreasing the duration in captivity for Americans when compared to other forms of concessions within U.S. hostage policy. However, Americans nevertheless remain in captivity twice as long as hostages from other nationalities when their release is negotiated through ransom. In addition, when other forms of concessions are offered by hostage takers as terms for release, such as negotiations through third-party state actors or humanitarian aid organizations, American hostages remain in captivity up to four times longer than all other nationalities. Furthermore, hostages from other nationalities are released through concessions before American hostages are released through ransom payments.

If ransom payments are effective, should U.S. hostage policy be adjusted to encourage such payments?

Findings from this thesis support ransom as an effective method in securing the safe release of American hostages; however, findings also support that ransom becomes ineffective as a method of securing the safe release of American hostages when the hostage taker’s objectives and motivations center on political gains or propaganda agendas. When the hostage takers’ objectives are political, American hostages become vulnerable to extended time in captivity; therefore, U.S. hostage policy options will need to adapt to this shift in motivations. In phase-one hostage situations that are responsive to ransom, it is recommended that U.S. hostage policy continue to give families and employers the leeway to negotiate for the release of the hostage. It is further recommended that the effectiveness of current U.S. hostage policy options should be reviewed in situations where the hostage takers are not presenting demands, as in the current trend of government-detention hostage situations.

As a result of this research, it is recommended that the United States maintain its current stance on U.S. hostage policy of removing the threat of prosecution for the payment of ransom by family members or employers for the release of hostages in phase-one hostage situations. The ability to negotiate and pay ransom allows family members and employers to secure the release of American hostages while the United States continues to work through civil and diplomatic avenues, addressing demands from hostage takers for political gains and propaganda agendas in exchange for the safe return of American citizens.


[1] Philip Gosse, The History of Piracy (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc, 2007).

[2] Gosse.

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