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Terrorism: Threat Assessment, Countermeasures and Policy

International Terrorism: American Hostages

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The Office of Counterterrorism, headed by Ambassador Francis X. Taylor, coordinates all U.S. Government efforts to improve counterterrorism cooperation with foreign governments. The Coordinator chairs the Interagency Working Group on Counterterrorism and the State Department's terrorism task forces to coordinate responses to major international terrorist incidents that are in progress. The Coordinator has primary responsibility for developing, coordinating, and implementing American counterterrorism policy.

U.S. Counterterrorism Policy

  • First, make no concessions to terrorists and strike no deals;
  • Second, bring terrorists to justice for their crimes;
  • Third, isolate and apply pressure on states that sponsor terrorism to force them to change their behavior; and
  • Fourth, bolster the counterterrorism capabilities of those countries that work with the U.S. and require assistance.

The United States Government will make no concessions to terrorists holding official or private U.S. citizens hostage. It will not pay ransom, release prisoners, change its policies, or agree to other acts that might encourage additional terrorism. At the same time, the United States will use every appropriate resource to gain the safe return of American citizens who are held hostage by terrorists. Hostage-taking is defined under international law (International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, adopted December 17, 1979) as the seizing or detaining and threatening to kill, injure, or continue to detain a person in order to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the seized or detained person.

It is internationally accepted that governments are responsible for the safety and welfare of persons within their borders. Aware of both the terrorist threat and public safety shortcomings in many parts of the world, the United States has developed enhanced physical and personal security programs for U.S. personnel and has established cooperative arrangements with the U.S. private sector. It also has established bilateral counter-terrorism assistance programs and close intelligence and law enforcement relationships with many nations to help prevent terrorist incidents or to resolve them in a manner that will deny the perpetrators benefits from their actions.

The United States also seeks effective judicial prosecution and punishment for terrorists and criminals victimizing the United States Government or its citizens and will use all legal methods to these ends, including extradition. U.S. policy and goals are clear, and the United States Government actively pursues them alone and in cooperation with other governments.

The United States Government believes that paying ransom or making other concessions to terrorists in exchange for the release of hostages increases the danger that others will be taken. Its policy therefore rejects all demands for ransom, prisoner exchanges, and deals with terrorists in exchange for the release of hostages. At the same time, it will make every effort, including contact with representatives of the captors, to obtain the release of the hostages.

The United States strongly urges American companies and private citizens not to pay ransom. It believes that good security practices, relatively modest security expenditures, and continual close cooperation with embassy and local authorities can lower the risk to Americans living in high-threat environments.

The United States Government is concerned for the welfare of its citizens but cannot support requests that host governments violate their own laws or abdicate their normal law enforcement responsibilities. On the other hand, if the employing organization or company works closely with local authorities and follows U.S. policy, U.S. Foreign Service posts can actively pursue efforts to bring the incident to a safe conclusion. This includes providing reasonable administrative services and, if desired by the local authorities and the American organization, full participation in strategy sessions. Requests for United States Government technical assistance or expertise will be considered on a case-by-case basis. The full extent of United States Government participation must await an analysis of each specific set of circumstances.

If a U.S. private organization or company seeks release of hostages by paying ransom or pressuring the host government for political concessions, U.S. Foreign Service posts will limit their participation to basic administrative services, such as facilitating contacts with host government officials. The host government and the U.S. private organization or citizen must understand that if they wish to follow a hostage resolution path different from that of United States Government policy, they do so without its approval or cooperation. The United States Government cannot participate in developing and implementing a ransom strategy. However, U.S. Foreign Service posts may maintain a discreet contact with the parties to keep abreast of developments.

Under current U.S. law 18 USC 1203 (Act for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Hostage-Taking, enacted October 1984 in implementation of the U.N. Convention on Hostage-Taking), seizure of a U.S. national as a hostage anywhere in the world is a crime, as is any hostage-taking action in which the United States Government is a target or the hostage-taker is a U.S. national. Such acts, therefore, are subject to investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and to prosecution by U.S. authorities. Actions by private persons or entities that have the effect of aiding and abetting the hostage-taking, concealing knowledge of it from the authorities, or obstructing its investigation, may themselves be in violation of U.S. law.

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Source: Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State.

Back to top | Contents, U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda, November 2001