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Foreign governments hold more American hostages than terrorist groups


Five Americans flew home this week after being freed by Iran. They were released as part of a prisoner swap and after the U.S. agreed to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue. It highlights the fact that foreign governments, not terrorist or criminal groups, now hold the majority of Americans who are held overseas. We're joined now by Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor at Northwestern University who is an expert in hostage diplomacy. Professor Gilbert, thanks for being with us.

DANIELLE GILBERT: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: And why do you think we're seeing more Americans being taken by foreign governments?

GILBERT: Hostage taking has always been a tactic that weaker actors use against their stronger opponents in conflict. So a hostage taker can be much weaker. They don't have to have the same kind of capabilities to really assert leverage against a much stronger opponent. Fifty years ago, that was hijackings and embassy sieges and then turned into a trend of kidnappings by terrorist and criminal groups. And in the last decade, we've seen this trend shift toward hostage diplomacy where states use their criminal justice system to take foreigners hostage.

SIMON: What do governments hope to get? And I recognize that answer probably changes from case to case.

GILBERT: It seems like Russia, for example, is really interested in these one-for-one prisoner swaps, like we saw last year with the return of Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner. But when we look at a state like Iran, they're often trying to negotiate hostage returns as part of much larger diplomatic deals that might involve their own nuclear policy. They might involve monetary or diplomatic concessions in addition to prisoner swaps. So this varies across different countries.

SIMON: What kind of pressures do kidnappings and hostage takings create, especially inside a democracy, when there can be popular movements pressuring the government to make concessions?

GILBERT: This puts a lot of pressure on democracies in particular that care about their citizenry. Countries that have a devotion to civil liberties and that have a free press will tend to report on these stories in which American citizens, for example, are being held in brutal and horrible conditions wrongfully all over the world. And so that puts a lot of pressure on the White House to figure out how to bring people home. And there's competing pressures. There is the potential criticism of what happens if a White House fails to recover hostages or the criticism on the other side if they do make a deal that, potentially, partisan opponents find to be controversial, like we saw this week.

SIMON: Does each agreement that results, let's say, in a swap of hostages or in the case with what just happened with Russia recently or in the case in Iran - understandable as that might be in personal terms, does it just encourage more taking of hostages and kidnappings?

GILBERT: There is, I think, a very reasonable and legitimate fear that today's hostage concessions, today's negotiations and deals, will incentivize future attacks. What I think is important to remember on the other side is that denying concessions has never kept our citizens safe. In the past, when the United States government has talked about not making concessions to terrorist hostage takers, for instance, that never stopped terrorist groups from kidnapping Americans and, in some cases, brutally beheading them. And that's because hostage takers can derive a wide range of benefits from hostage taking that have nothing to do with the concessions. It might be about embarrassing an adversary like the United States, or it might instead be about playing to their own domestic audience.

SIMON: Your bottom line, if I might put it - although there are things the United States can do, there are a lot of countries that have their own domestic political incentive in putting U.S. nationals in detention.

GILBERT: Absolutely. So hostage taking unfortunately works. It's an effective tool for adversaries, for autocratic governments all over the world that they might employ for a wide range of reasons.

SIMON: Professor, what foreign nationals does the U.S. have within jails or the criminal justice system?

GILBERT: The United States uses its own legal system to arrest people who have broken the law, and sometimes, that applies to foreign nationals, as well. So as we learned in the case of the deal earlier this week, there were a number of Iranian nationals who had been arrested in the United States for a range of what are considered more minor crimes - ranging from Iran sanctions violations to theft and other conspiracies. In all of these cases, these are people who were tried and convicted in United States courts for lawbreaking in ways that are nonarbitrary and that they're not people who are being intentionally targeted because they are foreigners for the purpose of leverage. And that's the crucial distinction when we talk about hostage diplomacy - that in the case of the prisoners who came back to the United States from Iran this week or from Russia last year - that these people were intentionally targeted because they are American citizens to be used for leverage against the United States government.

SIMON: Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor at Northwestern University. Thanks so much for being with us, professor.

GILBERT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.