The Mythology of Western Hostages

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

  • "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.

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