The recent propaganda film featuring the murder of journalist James Foley by a British ISIS fighter, also carried the follow on threat to murder another freelance journalist named Steven Sotloff. Today video has emerged that Sotloff has now been beheaded, and the third captive threatened is a former British soldier who does security work for aid organizations, David Cawthorne Haines. The pattern seems to be that every two weeks another hostage is executed.
ISIS is attempting to use these western hostages as collateral, threatening and carrying out the killings if US airstrikes against ISIS continue, clearly signalling an attempt by the terrorist organization to hijack US foreign policy via asymmetrical means. As the world’s only remaining super-power, with the ability to project military force around the globe, the United States is a hard target to deter. Perhaps no nation in the world can square off against America with conventional military forces. However, terrorism exploits America’s weak spots. By kidnapping Americans and holding them hostage on the world stage, terrorists can also hold American foreign policy hostage.
This form of political terrorism was in full swing during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Terrorists would hijack an aircraft filled with civilians and then demand the release of prisoners, a withdrawal of occupational forces, or whatever other political ends they wanted to achieve. In SOFREP’s interview with Lt. Col. Oliver North, a former National Security adviser during the Reagan administration, he stated that he believes that our counter-terrorism tactics at that time were particularly aggressive and successfully mitigated the threat of this form of terrorism. But with that success, terrorist organizations changed their tactics as well.
Political terrorism transformed into religious terrorism. No longer were hostages taken and demands made. Instead, suicide attacks were launched. This included suicide bombings, most notably the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda and its offshoot organizations, such as the Islamic State of Iraq, took hostages but made no demands. They simply beheaded the hostages and made snuff videos of the executions to intimidate people.
The reality is that political terrorism never truly went away and the threat has always persisted. Every execution of American hostages is ultimately a political act, but these executions did not come with policy demands, did not involve a ticking clock, ransom money, and they were not prolonged events which took place in front of the media such as aircraft hijackings or the Iran hostage crisis. None the less, the issue of Americans being taken hostage for whatever purpose is a profound asymmetrical threat to the United States and in order to combat it the units which make up JSOC conduct extensive training as well as performing actual hostage rescue operations throughout the Global War on Terror. The failed mission to rescue James Foley being the most recent example.
Dalton Fury writes of a fictional example in his novel “Black Site” where captured Delta Force operators are held hostage by Al Qaeda in Pakistan. The hostages are moved around to deter the CIA’s drone strike program, in essence the American prisoners are used as human shields in a manner that manipulates how the CIA assassinates Al Qaeda leaders. With the release of pictures, we now know that Bowe Bergdahl was with Haqqani himself at least for a short time. Was Bergdahl used in the manner that Fury describes in his fiction? It is hard to say for certain, but again, the opportunity to manipulate American foreign policy and military force is always present. What we can be certain of is that in our negotiations to recover Bergdahl, the United States must have sacrificed significant political capital in order to secure his release.
ISIS’ execution videos of Foley and Sotloff, with Haines unfortunately next in line for execution, if America does not call off the airstrikes, tells us that ISIS is using American hostages differently than Al Qaeda, ISI, AQI, and a number of other groups. While religious terrorism uses vicious executions for the intimidation of overseas Muslims and Americans alike, ISIS is looking to use them as political leverage. ISIS probably won’t execute their hostages right off the bat but rather hold on to them over the long term, creating a political and military crisis for the United States.
As the beheadings pick up pace, the United States government will only be further humiliated and it is about to get even uglier. One of the other Americans reported to me held by ISIS is a young female aid worker who has not been publicly named.
What does this mean for America, in particular the Special Operations community, when and if we go to war with ISIS? Our two units prepared for hostage rescues in denied environments, SEAL Team Six and Delta Force, won’t be hurting for work even as our war in Afghanistan dwindles and eventually ends.