The Mythology of Western Hostages

When a hostage from the United States requires negotiation with terrorists the path can become treacherous and unpredictable.

| January 2018

  • "Overall, the kidnapping industry today is bigger than the illegal drug trade and worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually."
    Photo by Seven Stories Press
  • Merchants of Men by Loretta Napoleoni
    Photo by Seven Stories Press

In Merchants of Men a powerful and sophisticated underground business delivers thousands of refugees a day all along the Mediterranean coasts of Europe. The new breed of criminals that controls it has risen out of the political chaos of post-9/11 Western foreign policy and the fiasco of the Arab Spring. These merchants of men are intertwined with jihadist armed organizations such as al Qaeda in the Maghreb. They have prospered smuggling cocaine from West Africa and kidnapping Westerners. More recently, the destabilization of Syria and Iraq coupled with the rise of ISIS offered them new business opportunities in the Middle East, from selling Western hostages to jihadist groups to trafficking in refugees numbering in the millions.

The Mythology of Western Hostages

Western governments portray all hostages as heroes, especially if they wear a uniform. Soldiers hold the highest ranking. They are the bravest: abducted while in the pursuit of their duty to protect their country. This is the narrative that justifies the decision to rescue them at any costs, including negotiating with terrorists. No government can ignore this commitment, including the United States.

Perhaps the best account of why, under the right circumstances, every country negotiates with kidnappers, is by President Obama: “The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”This pronouncement was made on May 31, 2014, in the Rose Garden when Barack Obama announced the liberation of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. The then twenty-eight-year-old soldier had been kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan almost five years earlier on June 30, 2009. During the speech the president revealed that to free the hostage the United States had agreed to transfer five detainees from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp to Qatar, the country that had helped broker the deal.

The ceremony held at the Rose Garden was supposed to be the first of several celebrations to welcome home Sergeant Bergdahl. Instead, almost as soon as he set foot on US soil, things went sour. Several members of his platoon in Afghanistan accused him of being a deserter and someone even hinted that he might be a traitor. Republicans lashed out at President Obama for having secured his release without properly informing Congress, and putting US national security at risk. Some even criticized Bergdahl’s father for having spoken a few words in Pashto during the Rose Garden ceremony. As more and more of the details about Sergeant Bergdahl’s abduction became known, the polemics linked to his release, abduction, and ransom soared.



The Bourne Foolishness

Bowe Bergdahl was kidnapped on the morning of June 30, 2009, while walking alone in the Afghan desert, a few miles from the tiny outpost known as OP Mest where he was posted. Mest is in the Paktika Province, in eastern Afghanistan, right near the Pakistani border. A few hours earlier, Bergdahl had left his post without permission. Technically speaking, he had deserted his platoon.

Just after sunrise, a Taliban group on motorcycles spotted and approached him, as is customary in any desert region. Because he was not wearing his uniform but Afghan clothes, the Taliban realized that he was not a Pashtun only when they got close to him.

Bergdahl’s story begs several questions: What was a twenty-three-year-old soldier doing alone in the middle of the Afghan desert? How did he get there? And why was he unarmed in a region infested by the Taliban?

After his liberation, Bergdahl did not speak to the media, and US authorities did not release any information. Very little was known about the precious hours before his abduction. Privately, however, Bergdahl disclosed the events that led to his captivity to Mark Boal, the screen- writer of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Boal approached Bergdahl because he wanted to make a movie of his story. Some of the recorded conversations between them, a total of about twenty-five hours, were used by the popular podcast Serial in its second series. The podcast reveals some interesting and disconcerting aspects of Bergdahl’s abduction. For example, the kidnapping appears to have been the direct result of a twenty-three-year-old soldier who believed that he could prove to the world and to himself that he was a real-life Jason Bourne, the fictional hero of the Bourne film trilogy based on the Robert Ludlum novels.

For a start, Bowe Bergdahl admitted to Mark Boal that he had staged his own disappearance. His plan was to walk from his base at Mest to the other, much bigger US military post at Sharana. Sharana is about twenty miles southwest of Mest. Bergdahl thought he could reach it in about twenty-four hours, a rather optimistic forecast. The route is long and difficult, especially in the summer heat, traversing the desert. It is also quite risky. The area is under Taliban control and people travel back and forth regularly. Someone was bound to see Bergdahl, approach him, and discover that he was not a Pashtun but an American. But Bergdahl did not consider these likely outcomes. For him, it was sufficient to be physically fit for the trek, and he was confident that wearing civilian clothes would be a perfect disguise.

The key question that Mark Boal asked Bergdahl was, “Why disappear for twenty-four hours?” Bergdahl answered that he wanted to trigger a DUSTWUN, military-speak for “duty status—whereabouts unknown,” the army’s version of “man overboard,” a major military emergency. And indeed this is exactly what happened. When the platoon realized that he had vanished, everyone from the CIA to the Navy, to the Air Force, to the Marines, and all US military contingents present in Afghanistan, were alerted. From there news of his disappearance eventually reached Washington, D.C., the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House.

It would seem that this young soldier triggered a major military crisis in order to expose another, larger crisis, which he believed was so serious that it required an exceptional event.186 That is, Bergdahl knew that DUSTWUN would direct widespread attention to him, and that when he reappeared in Sharana he would be debriefed by his superiors. He believed that this was his only chance to sit face to face with high ranking officers, even generals, and be heard. He believed that he could finally voice his serious concerns about the leadership of his platoon, and of the US Army in Afghanistan in general. He had even written to his father about these worries, seeking advice. But the plan was based on delusions of grandeur.

On the night of June 29, 2009, Bergdahl snuck out of the camp and began his trek towards Sharana. Just like Jason Bourne, Bowe Bergdahl acted alone. During the previous days he had sent home most of his possessions to prevent anybody from checking them, and he had withdrawn $300 in cash from his account, money he thought he might need during the trek. He had taken a compass and a knife with him, but he had left behind his night vision goggles, his weapons, and his radio.

When he reached the desert, he suddenly realized what he had done. The magnitude, and perhaps the stupidity, of his plan hit him. Unlike the hero of the Bourne movie series, Bergdahl panicked. Though he wanted to go back, he judged it too risky to do so at nighttime. The sentinels would have shot at him not knowing who he was. But above all, he was concerned about what would happen to him once his superiors realized that he had left his platoon without permission. To the army, he was already a deserter. Under the Afghan night sky, Bergdahl developed another, even more absurd, plan of action. He decided that if he could return with some valuable intelligence to show, his superiors would be lenient. He remembered hearing that on the road from Mest to Sharana the Taliban sometimes placed IEDs (improvised explosive devices), so he decided to look for people planting them. He would act as a sort of Special Forces soldier and either catch them or follow them to their hideout and then report their location to his superiors. He began to look for flashlights bobbing up and down, and listened for the crackle of radios.

“The idea would have been, if I had seen somebody in the darkness who looked like they were doing something suspicious, I would then slowly, quietly follow them in the night,” Bergdahl told Boal. “And then, in the morning, pick up their trail and track them to wherever it is that they’re going. Then I’d get that information . . . . [W]hen I got back to [Mest], you know, they could say, you know, well, you left your position. But I could say, well, I also got this information, so, you know, what are you going to do? I have this information of this person who is doing this on this night, and they live here. And so that would be like jus- tifiable, like: He left his post . . . but he collected intel that helped us stop, you know, somebody who was putting an IED in the road. You know, that would’ve been the bonus point that would have helped me deal with the whole, basi- cally, hurricane of horror—or not hurricane of horror, but hurricane of wrath—that was gonna hit me once I got back to [Mest].”



Listening to Bowe Bergdahl, one cannot help but think how naïve his plan was and how delusional the sergeant was about his “mission.” He admitted to Boal that he wanted to prove to himself and to the world that he was a super soldier, someone like Jason Bourne, an imaginary character who singlehandedly could expose a major weak- ness of the military system. Instead, he behaved stupidly, and was kidnapped and held hostage for almost five years. DUSTWUN triggered a massive search that cost the American taxpayer millions of dollars.

Media reports written soon after Bergdahl was freed claimed that the search for Bergdahl may have even cost the lives of six fellow soldiers, though this claim has since been shown as likely fabricated by members of his bat- talion. No US soldier’s death has ever been directly linked to the DUSTWUN. Nonetheless, at the time, popular attribution of Bergdahl’s responsibility for the deaths of six US soldiers compounded public anger over the deal struck by US authorities to bring him home.

As the media spread the story, Bowe Bergdahl’s kidnap- ping and release became more and more political. The White House had agreed to exchange him for five high- ranking members of the Taliban, as part of a reconciliation process between the US and the Taliban first masterminded by Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2009. That reconciliation process ultimately went sour, and Sergeant Bergdahl came to be regarded as just further evidence of its failure. Reckless Behavior

Most Westerners are kidnapped not because they are heroes but because they fail to comprehend the risk they are taking. Bowe Bergdahl falls into this category. So do many other former hostages, including some of those beheaded by the Islamic State. “The Jim Foley I knew was a real nice guy but he did act exactly as security people who run courses to prevent kidnapping tell you not to behave,” said Francesca Borri.

This portrait of Foley partly corresponds to the description of him provided by the European negotiator who tried to bring him home.

“The last time I saw Jimmy was in Aleppo,” continues Borri. “We were leaving the Al Shifa Hospital, which was constantly under attack. We stopped to distribute our sup- plies to the people that stayed behind and to pick up those who were heading for Turkey, like myself, Jim Foley, Narciso Contreras, Antonio Pampliega, Manu Brabo, the boys who later on won the Pulitzer Prize. Everybody had taken off their bulletproof jackets and they were relaxed after a long work day. Suddenly the hospital came under mortar attack. We jumped into the first service van we found and fled. It was a very serious situation: bombs and bullets were flying all over. The driver was so scared that he got lost twice. But Jimmy was laughing!

“I was petrified with fear and Jimmy was laughing. I remember that Narciso Contreras, who was sitting in front, kept looking at me. He had understood very well how scared I was. I was particularly stressed because I had left behind someone I cared about. He had not managed to jump into the van when all hell had broken loose. Jimmy kept laughing at me, telling me that these types of situations are not for women.

“Everybody was hiding behind the doors of the van for fear of being hit by a flying bullet but Jimmy rolled down the window and put his arm out, waving, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar!’ A gesture that, among other things, shows no respect and sensitivity for the driver who was des- perately trying to keep it together and save our lives. This is the last image I have of Jim Foley! Perhaps this reckless behavior was the result of being in a state of shock. Indeed, extreme fear can trigger a sense of immortality,” says Borri.

“It’s easy to feel invincible, even with death all around,” Steven Sotloff, also kidnapped and beheaded by the Islamic State, wrote to the Middle East editor for Newsweek. “It’s like, ‘This is my movie, sucker—I’m not gonna die.’”189 However, this feeling of invincibility is exactly the behavior that gets one kidnapped and killed.

“Steven Sotloff was my friend,” says the Syrian journalist Omar al Muqdad, producer of the BBC documentary We Left Them Behind. “Two weeks before leaving for Syria he came to me and said that he needed my help because he wanted to travel to Syria. I told him not to go. It was risky for me. For him it was extremely dangerous, but he did not listen. He mentioned a few names, all scumbags, people who would sell him for a few hundred dollars. I told him so. But he did not listen. He called me before crossing into Syria. I again urged him not to trust his fixer. I am con- vinced his fixer sold him. As soon as he crossed the border from Turkey, just fifteen minutes after, he was kidnapped. After he crossed into Syria I tried to call his mobile but I got no answer.”

Both Steven Sotloff, the aspiring journalist, and Daniel Rye Ottosen, the aspiring photographer, were warned not to cross over into Syria by people who knew how risky their plans were. They did not listen. They were kidnapped and eventually ended up in the hands of the Islamic State.

In the trailer for the HBO documentary about James Foley, Jim: The James Foley Story,191 people like Sotloff, Ottosen, and Foley are presented as journalist-martyrs. The message is that without them we would not know the horrors of the Syrian Civil War. But this is not completely correct. We celebrate them not because they showed us the tragedy of Syria but because they were kidnapped and, in the case of Sotloff and Foley, beheaded by the Islamic State. The proof is that the public did not know who they were before their abduction, as their articles did not appear on the front pages of any distinguished newspapers. Likewise, today the public is still unaware of the names of the free- lancers who are reporting on the Syrian conflict, or even most of the names of abducted journalists who remain in captivity!

The disturbing news that made us aware of the existence of people like Sotloff, Ottosen, and Foley wasn’t the news that they reported, but the news of their abductions and their deaths. Professional journalists understand this. Marc Marginedas, also held hostage by ISIS, said that he did not want to discuss his abduction because he is not the news; the news is what is happening in Syria. Nicolas Hénin, another journalist and hostage held captive by the Islamic State, warned readers of his book, Jihad Academy, that he did not write about his captivity, of his interaction with “The Beatles”—the British-born jailers of the foreign hostages held by the Islamic State—and his fellow hostages, but about what is happening in Syria and the Middle East, because even while held hostage he did not stop being a journalist.

The mythology that the West constructs around the hostages hides the shocking fact that stories about Syria or the Middle East written by people like Sotloff and Foley never appeared on the front page of the New York Times or anyplace else with a substantial readership and thus never stirred any reaction among citizens in Europe or America or Japan or anywhere else in the West. The reason? The public does not care enough about Syria sliding into total anarchy, and the writers were unknown freelancers. People in America were much more interested in the riots in Fer- guson, Missouri, than the suffering of the Syrian people. Until the birth of the Caliphate, Western freelancers in Syria only produced very marginal news that was published in very small and peripheral online publications or newspapers.

What kept these freelancers going was the dream of get- ting a scoop. In her memoir, A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout describes such a dream. She uses the story of Dan Rather as an example. When in the 1960s Rather was still a young and inexperienced reporter working for a small TV station in Houston, Texas, a huge hurricane reached the Gulf of Mexico, heading for the island of Galveston. Everyone took cover, but Dan Rather drove over the bridge and waited for the hurricane to hit Galveston. When the storm reached the island he delivered his reports in the middle of the hurricane. Lindhout concludes that that day Dan Rather could have died but instead he survived the storm and got the footage that made his career.Freelancers wait for that unique opportunity. But the chances are that even when such opportunities materialize today, they don’t produce the same results. For a start, today there would be a crowd of reporters and cameramen heading for the hurricane. The report would be a mere blip in the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Finally, with wars a nearly constant reality across the globe, and Western audiences ever more cynical that anything can be done to stop them, the scoop of a lifetime is becoming a thing of the past. Aspiring reporters may spend their lives brushing with death for nothing. Many become so accustomed to the adrenaline of war that they keep going back for more, taking greater and greater risks to get their fix.

Even in the parallel world that they inhabit, however, there are opportunities for true heroism. The James Foley that fellow hostages portray is indeed a hero. He was a pillar of strength for his fellow captives. And this indeed should be news. The man who seconds before being beheaded in front of the camera recites a script condemning his own brother and his country may seem like another un-heroic man. But did he agree to recite those sentences to protect his fellow hostages from retaliation by ISIS? It is highly probable.

The media has not even attempted to ask such questions or portray a range of possible perspectives. The wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq have not been honorable, humanitarian endeavors; they have been dirty wars, wars of continuous embarrassment for politicians, for the army, and for the West. As with the Vietnam War, Western mass media has chosen to avoid the truth of these conflicts to pander to sentiments of Western victims as “supernatural heroes,” the better to keep these conflicts at a safe distance from their imagined innocence.

Stereotyping hostages, styling them as heroes as governments do, hides the human complexity of their individual personalities and the complexity also of the situation they are in as hostages. Bowe Bergdahl may have been a bad soldier, but he was also an outstanding POW who survived captivity for five years in abysmal conditions. Not since Vietnam has the US Army had the chance to study and learn from this type of survival: here was a fount of information regarding how an individual copes with harsh captivity, and why such an individual can handle such extremes of stress. The most important contribution made by Sergeant Bergdahl could have been to the science of his very survival, but instead he has been put to only further sensationalist political use.

The narratives of hostages coping with extreme violence and deprivation of freedom tend to be mined for emotional sentiment, shock value, and hero-worship rather than any deeper meaning regarding the causes or effects of their plight. Reducing the lives of hostages to a single news item nearly always hides the truth. Physical pain and emotional trauma trigger complex emotional and psycho- logical responses in anyone who has been a hostage. And the media itself, with its constant craving for each news story to be even more shocking than the last, combined with the current media practice of cutting more and more corners, must also bear some of the responsibility for these kidnappings and deaths. Would the current situation be what it is if the major newspapers of the world still had foreign bureaus in the Middle East as they once did?

Imprudence, The Sin of Youth

Hiding the truth also plays into the hands of kidnappers. It prevents the formulation of new strategies by perpetuating a practice (paying ransom), which makes kidnapping a profitable business and improperly alters Westerners’ perception of risk. This is particularly true for Italians because they know that their government will always pay the ransom. More than one Italian journalist admitted to me that they take higher risks because of the certainty that Italy will rescue them.

The policy of the Italian government has been to pay a ransom for anyone holding an Italian passport, regardless of who they are: journalists, aid workers, and even tourists who reside abroad, as was the case of Bruno Pelizzari, dis- cussed in Chapter Eight. The Italian government went so far as to pay the ransom for Debbie Calitz, even though she did not have an Italian passport, but rather was sailing with Pelizzari at the time of the abduction. The Italian government also paid the ransom for the Belgian Piccinin abducted together with Quirico, as described by the Al Jazeera documentary The Hostage Business.

Naturally, the Italian public is told  that  no  ransom  has ever been paid. In the case of Pelizzari, the truth was hidden behind elaborate fabrications. The secrecy sur- rounding the abduction, negotiation, and ransom payment is fundamental to the construction of any fictitious narra- tive about the hostages. It becomes an empty box, which the media actively participate in filling with mythological stories about the hostages, as was the case with the Two Simonas.

This web of lies and deceit is at the center of the kidnapping industry. The common narrative—captured heroes saved by payment of a ransom that is never admitted—has the effect of increasing the value of certain hostages and decreasing the bargaining power of those negotiating their release because the kidnappers know that a ransom will eventually always be paid. Finally, as we have seen, profits from the kidnapping industry become seed money for trafficking migrants heading for Europe. Ironically, one of the most popular gates of entry to the Old Continent is southern Italy.

Although the Western public is not aware of these developments, polemics similar to those that erupted about the abduction and ransom paid to liberate Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl are surfacing everywhere, including in Italy. The most recent controversy refers to the payment of a multi-million dollar ransom for Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo, kidnapped in Aleppo on July 31, 2014, just a few days after their arrival in Turkey and released on January 16, 2015.

As was the case with Sergeant Bergdahl, there are several versions of the kidnapping of Ramelli and Marzullo. Some people said that they were abducted with an Italian journalist, Daniele Raineri, with whom they had crossed the border into Syria. However, Raineri denied this and presented a different account of events. On the night of the kidnapping he was at the house of a rebel leader, a former member of Assad’s Special Forces. As he told the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, “At five in the morning there were knocks on the door. Two Syrians came in and said, ‘They have kidnapped the two Italians [Greta and Vanessa]. They’re looking for you, too.’” When Raineri asked whether the men searching for him were guerrillas or just a gang of armed men, they could not tell him. “They told me they wore ski masks, almost all of them, and pointed at my face so I was certain to understand them.”194 According to Raineri, he immediately headed for the Turkish border with an escort that his rebel friends provided. Once in Turkey, he alerted the Italian crisis unit.

After their liberation, Ramelli and Marzullo  explained the dynamics of their kidnapping to the Italian magistrates. Hours after they reached their destination, the house of the head of “the Revolutionary Council,” a Syrian they had met on Facebook, they were kidnapped. They never met their host. Both women had been in Syria twice between April and May of the same year. After securing donations of €2,400 in Italy, they had brought medicine and food, which they distributed in the region of Idlib, in the north of Syria, and Homs, in the south. According to several sources, in July 2014 Ramelli and Marzullo were bringing camouflaged medical kits, which they showed on the Facebook page of Horryaty, the nonprofit company they had formed in April 2014 to help the Syrian independence cause.

From the reconstruction of the abduction, it appears that their kidnapping had been arranged before their arrival. “Two cars with armed men arrived and we were taken away. We kept our heads down. We tried not to look at them in the eyes. Their faces were covered. The kid- nappers spoke very little, only one spoke a few words of English. . . . After being captured we asked ‘why are you doing this?’ And they replied, ‘We do it for the money.’”

During their captivity, the hostages were moved five times. It is likely that they were sold more than once. Possibly the group that contacted Samir Aita, a member of the Syrian Democratic Forum who lives in Paris, was the group that abducted them. Eventually they were purchased by al Nusra, which conducted the negotiations directly with the Italian government. The ransom of €11 million was filmed and shown by Al Jazeera in the documentary The Hostage Business. But according to a new investigation, the Italians paid not €11 million but €13 million of which €1 or €2 million never reached the kidnappers. The Italian authorities suspect that it was pocketed by an Italian intermediary who conducted the final negotiations either in Syria or across the border, in Turkey. Part of the ransom, about €5 million, was also pocketed by another intermediary, Hussam Atrash, a warlord at the head of the group Ansar al Islam.

The controversy surrounding the kidnapping of Ramelli and Marzullo goes well beyond the amount of the ransom and touches on the very nature of the Italian ONLUS, a kind of nonprofit organization with less stringent require- ments than traditional nonprofits. Together with a third member, Ramelli and Marzullo had founded the ONLUS called Horryaty with a few thousand dollars. They were  its only staff. They operated from a Facebook fan page and raised money using this means. The fact that the two women were in Syria ostensibly on a charitable mission played a significant role in the discussion surrounding their rescue, despite the fact that their ONLUS was only just barely legitimate.

Since 1997, when this type of association was introduced by the Italian legislation, ONLUSes have proliferated. Today there are about forty thousand of them. This is more than 10 percent of the total number of Italian nonprofit organizations. According to Istat, the national statistics bureau of Italy, at the end of 2013 there were 301,191 non- profit institutions active in Italy, about 28 percent more than in 2001. The number of Italians working for these organizations, either receiving a salary or simply doing volunteer work, was a staggering 4.7 million.

The popularity of ONLUSes springs from the fiscal advantages attached to their nonprofit stature and from the ease and low cost required to establish one, about €2,000. Once registered, an ONLUS can start raising money for whichever cause it was created to support: from cultural events, to sports, to humanitarian aid, as was the case of Horryaty. Because an ONLUS is essentially a fiscal entity, it comes under the jurisdiction of the Italian fiscal authorities. The situation was different before 1997. Humanitarian NGOs came under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Ministry. Because until about 15 to 20 years ago most of the funds used by the NGOs were public money, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regulated its allocation. During the last twenty years, however, humanitarian aid organizations have successfully gathered funds from private donors, a phenomenon which explains the need for a preferential fiscal treatment provided by the status of ONLUSes. “Out of about 40,000 ONLUSes, today about 250 of those organizations formerly recognized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as NGOs qualified according to the legislation of 1987 which regulated international cooperation,” says Marco De Ponte, secretary-general for ActionAid in Italy. This explains why Horryaty did not appear on this [Min- istry of Foreign Affairs] list of NGOs, but does not explain why both Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo did not inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they were traveling to Syria.

As with the Two Simonas, the Italian government denied the payment of the ransom and assumed a soft attitude towards the reckless behavior of Greta and Vanessa. In a TV interview, the Italian foreign minister said that while he recognized that the two women had acted recklessly, they deserved help because they were helping people in difficult circumstances. Once again the narrative woven around the hostages portrayed them as exceptional human beings, even though these women were naïve upstarts. During the interview there is no mention of what in particular Ramelli and Marzullo purported to do in Syria. The reconstruction of their abduction is vague and carefully avoids important details: How did they end up in the house where they were kidnapped? How many times were they moved around? What ever happened to the camouflage medical kits they had brought with them? Answering these questions would have deconstructed the mythology of the two women as modern-day Florence Nightingales.

During the same TV interview, an Italian journalist, Beppe Severgnini, praising the government for having brought home yet another couple of hostages, while admitting that they had been  imprudent,  added  that imprudence is a sin of youth. Naturally, he did not mention that such “youthful” behavior had cost Italian taxpayers €13 million.

Negotiating With Terrorists

No matter what cover story they use, everybody ultimately negotiates with kidnappers and terrorists. Some countries, like Italy, pay exceptionally high ransoms, while others, like the US, trade hostages for captured enemy combat- ants. For governments, hostages are political merchandise. They may represent percentage points in opinion polls, or they can be instruments in the implementation of foreign policy strategies. Indeed, this latter role seems to be the one played by Bowe Bergdahl.

From the outstanding reconstruction of his ordeal conducted by the podcast Serial, it emerged that Sergeant Bergdahl owes his freedom to a series of exceptional events. As soon as he disappeared, Kim Harrison, listed as the person to contact if something happened to Bowe, began enquiring about the procedures for finding him. Finding few answers and a lot of red tape, she eventually decided to go to the FBI and file a missing persons report. In November 2009 she was contacted by the Taliban, or at least that is what she thought. The FBI translated the Pashto message she received from someone who claimed to know where Bergdahl was being held. In exchange, the sender of the message wanted to move to the US with eight members of his family.

No government agencies wanted to handle the issue, and the US did not have reliable sources in the region to verify the information. By then Bowe was wanted by both the CIA and the military, especially due to questions about why he had left his post. But two women working for the US Army’s Personnel Recovery Unit, the one that deals with hostages, began campaigning for his release among top-ranking military officers. They did it quietly, discreetly. At the same time, a military analyst who had worked directly on the case contacted the family and offered his help. All of them felt that no matter why Sergeant Bergdahl had been captured, he was still an American in a hostile country, and he was a hostage. Their primary duty was to bring him home, and then the authorities could deal with his motivations.

In the podcast Serial, the military analyst is known by the fictitious name “Nathan.” Nathan guided the Bergdahl family in their search for help in recovering Bowe, hoping to reach somebody important in the US government who could authorize negotiations for his safe return. Their objective was to somehow get close to President Obama and get him to back a strategy for bringing Bowe home. Nathan knew that, despite ostensible  intransigence, the US indeed negotiates with terrorists and kidnappers to free hostages. As he indicated on Serial, if the CIA had gotten contractor Raymond Davis out of Pakistan,201 despite his arrest for murdering two people, why not negotiate to free Sergeant Bergdahl?

Nathan’s coaching of Bowe’s parents began to bear some fruit: a couple of generals took the matter to heart, and they, in turn, could advocate among high government officials for Bowe’s rescue. But it was only when Bergdahl became part of a major foreign policy project, the reconciliation with the Taliban, that freeing Bowe Bergdahl became a priority. As part of a “trade,” he was going to be exchanged for five members of the Taliban held in Guantánamo Bay. Trading these prisoners represented only a small part of the deal; the White House was also anxious to end the war in Afghanistan, to bring the troops back home. To achieve this larger goal, it was imperative to make some appeasements and to end the war with the Taliban.

Naturally, nobody knew about this plan apart from those very close to the president and secretary of state. The full reconciliation project never actually panned out, but the exchange did take place as planned. Had the White House kept a low profile and avoided using the release of Sergeant Bergdahl for publicity purposes at home, it is likely that the public outcry and negative media regarding Bergdahl’s desertion and prisoner swap with the Taliban would never have happened. The presentation of Bowe as a hero out- raged some of his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan. They publicly denounced Bergdahl’s actions and cast aspersions upon the official story of why he had been kidnapped, and the media and politicians like John McCain were quick to join the feeding frenzy.

Hostages can easily become political merchandise, for officials, reporters, businesses—and even for the public.


Excerpted from Merchants of Men: How Jihadists and ISIS Turned Kidnapping and Refugee Trafficking into a Multi-Billion Dollar Business by Loretta Napoleoni, published by Seven Stories Press.



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