Americans Kidnapped Abroad: The Forgotten Hostage Crisis

Adventure journalist Michael Scott Moore was kidnapped in 2012 in Somalia, where he likely remains with little hope of release. Credit:

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the 28-year-old infantryman from Idaho taken hostage by the Taliban in 2009, may finally be home and back on active duty in San Antonio. But others aren't so lucky. Dozens of Westerners held hostage around the world, including at least eight Americans – seven in the Middle East and Africa; one in Mexico – face grim prospects for a successful return. What separates them from Bergdahl, or many of the staff journalists and full-time employees who have been captured and released, is that they lack a deep-pocketed corporation or the full force of the American government to work on their behalf.

In 2007, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent and father of seven, was freelancing for the intelligence community when he was kidnapped on Iran's Kish Island; he's now the longest-held American hostage in history. Two years ago, 29-year-old Caitlin Coleman and her Canadian husband were taken by the Taliban while hiking in the mountains near Kabul (she's since given birth to her first child in captivity). That same year, journalists James Foley and Austin Tice each traveled into Syria from Turkey to cover the civil war and were abducted separately by gunmen. Warren Weinstein, a 73-year-old American aid worker kidnapped by Al Qaeda in Pakistan in August 2011, has sent a handwritten note from captivity and appeared in videos posted online, but little relieves his family's distress. "Everything is an unknown," his daughter Alisa Weinstein says. "You feel helpless that you can't act with the urgency that every fiber of your being tells you to act with."

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The ongoing wars and recent civil unrest overseas have lured waves of freelance journalists and international aid workers eager to gain a point of professional distinction in the world's most violent locales. At the same time, a growing number of militant groups have discovered the political and monetary value of holding a Western captive. After the release of Bergdahl, who was the last remaining American service member detained in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior Taliban commander told Time, "It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird."

In Syria, at least 86 journalists have been kidnapped in the past three years; more than 20 of them remain in captivity. Five doctors were seized there in January, and 60 aid workers have been attacked, kidnapped, or killed during the conflict, as well. In the past, doctors, aid workers, and even journalists were generally immune from militant violence because of the humanitarian nature of their efforts. But that's changed. Mark Harris, the crisis response director at the private security firm Olive Group, says that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which brought an influx of undercover intelligence officers to the region, caused that protection to "disappear overnight."

Preventing and resolving hostage situations has become a billion-dollar industry. According to Michal Gnatek, a hostage insurance broker at Lockton Companies in Washington, D.C., the U.S. military, oil and gas companies, media organizations, and major NGOs are all customers of kidnapping and ransom insurance companies. For those without insurance, resolving a situation privately can cost millions of dollars. In addition to the ransom price, personal crisis- response specialists – who typically hail from the CIA, the FBI, MI6, or the ranks of military intelligence – can charge upwards of $3,000 a day. Few can afford this option, and so most are left to appeal for help from the government, which officially says it does not negotiate with terrorists. But the reality is murkier than that.

In January 2012, Michael Scott Moore, an American journalist who traveled to Somalia to write about piracy, was headed to the airport in the town of Galkayo when a pair of trucks carrying 15 pirates overtook his transport at gunpoint. Shortly afterward, a shaky video surfaced online of him standing beneath a small tree, surrounded by armed, masked men. Moore, the author of Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, picks at his fingernails as he speaks, his face knitted with worry. "I'm terrified," he tells the camera, before asking the U.S. or German governments to pay his $20 million ransom.

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That month, a team of Navy SEALs killed nine pirates to free Jessica Buchanan, a 32-year-old aid worker who was kidnapped in Somalia and reportedly was in declining health. Moore had been last seen less than 200 miles away, but no similar effort appears underway to rescue him. Christopher Voss, the former lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI, sees politics at work in the two responses. "Who do we look better saving: an altruistic, sick young lady or a vagabond journalist?" The point, he says, is: "How's it going to play when we get them out?"

Moore and the seven other American hostages have now spent years in captivity, but just a few days can be traumatic. "Being blindfolded and bound is something you can't really conceive until it happens," says Lynsey Addario, a New York Times photographer who was kidnapped during the Libyan conflict in 2011. "It was incredibly intense and violent...both psychologically and physically." During her detainment, she was punched and groped. One of her captors caressed her face while telling her she was going to die. A colleague who was kidnapped with her, Times reporter Stephen Farrell, recalls a battle of wills. Something sharp that felt like a bayonet was pressed into the seat of his pants. He refused to react, and the kidnapper pushed the blade deeper, until the fabric began to tear. Someone punched him between his shoulder blades. "I went, 'Ahhh!' and clearly in a mocking way, he went, 'Whaaa!' " Farrell says. "He wanted a reaction of pain and fear."

With help from the U.S., British, and Turkish governments, the New York Times was able to free Addario, Farrell, and two other reporters after they'd spent six days in captivity. But Voss, who runs a business consulting firm, says the families of the remaining American hostages "should have very limited expectations of the United States government."

Before the prisoner swap for Bergdahl, the family members of Warren Weinstein worried that publicizing the situation would encourage the captors to demand more money. But unable to afford a private negotiator and frustrated with the lack of a government response, they decided to tell their story to reporters at the Washington Post and ABC News. Since then, according to Weinstein's daughter Alisa, the State Department has reached out to the family. But with so little information on her father's situation, it's hard to determine the best thing to do for him. "My dad is lost," Weinstein says. "He could be alone in a dark room; he could be anywhere. I can't find him. I can't even let him know I'm trying to find him."