Since President Trump took office more than two-and-a-half years ago, he has touted his prowess at being able to bring U.S citizens wrongfully held abroad home – framing it as a coup the Obama administration was not able to do as effectively.
Partisan politics aside – families, lawmakers and activists alike have indicated that a hardline focus on bringing Americans is yielding results.
“What has changed under the Trump administration is the level of personal interest and engagement from the President. Trump has made it clear that he views the return of American hostages as a priority and regularly touts his success,” Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and author of “We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom,” told Fox News. “The hostage families I speak with appreciate the attention the President gives the issue, but some policy experts worry that the same attention could increase the risk by making clear the potential value of American hostages.”
To date, at least 21 hostages held abroad have been freed throughout Trump’s first term. They range from a former CIA officer, Sabrina de Sousa, who was held in Portugal for more than 18 months at the request of Italian prosecutors and an Egyptian-American charity worker Aya Hijazi who was imprisoned in Cairo for three years. Then there was American businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis who was released from China, and Caitlin Coleman and her family her were discharged by the Haqqani network in the Pakistan-Afghanistan area in 2017.
Sabrina de Sousa is photographed at her home in Washington, D.C., on Monday, June 11, 2012. De Sousa is convicted for her role in the abduction of Abu Omar in 2003 in Milan. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Meanwhile, American Joshua Holt was released from years in a Venezuelan prison, Pastor Andrew Brunson was let go in Turkey, and more recently NASA scientist Serkan Golge was released in late May. Moreover, just five days after Kimberly Endicott was kidnapped along with her tour guide in Uganda earlier this year, the California-based grandmother was promptly freed – with a murmured cash exchange – and swift coordination between Ugandan and U.S. officials.
“The Trump administration has been pro-active about achieving the release of unfairly detained or captured Americans,” concurred Jonathan Schanzer, Senior Vice President for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “It has done this through direct engagement with foreign leaders such as Egypt or North Korea, indirect engagement via proxy – such as UAE helping to release a hostage in Yemen, and sanctions – against Turkish ministers. The President has certainly prioritized this more than other presidents.”
A study released late last month by the James Foley Legacy Foundation further indicated that families are finding noted improvements in dealing with the U.S. government in the quest to obtain information about their loved one, in addition to an increase in the number of U.S. citizens held captive successfully being freed. The study participants furthermore pointed to a greater prioritization of their cases at a senior level.
President Donald Trump prays with American pastor Andrew Brunson in the Oval Office of the White House, Saturday October 13, 2018, in Washington. Brunson returned to the U.S. around midday after he was freed Friday, from nearly two years of detention in Turkey. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
On average, between 200 and 300 Americans – from aid workers and journalists to tourists, students, business people, and dual citizens – are abducted by non-state actors such as criminal groups or terrorists or detained abroad by adverse state-actors annually, according to support and awareness organization, Hostage US. Most are taken for monetary reasons or in the quest for media or some form of concession, but there is always a handful who are swept up simply to become political bargaining chips for rogue regimes.
But U.S policy started to shift under Obama in late 2014 – de-criminalizing the concept of families being able to raise ransom monies and allowing for broader communication between government and hostage-takers – amid growing frustration after several American journalists were seized and beheaded on camera by ISIS, while many of their fellow western journalists were salvaged alive by their respective governments.
Between 2001 and 2016, according to a study published by the New America Foundation, Americans accounted for 45 percent of the total hostages killed by their captors.
“I like what President Trump is doing regarding prisoners and unlawful detentions. He has taken a more assertive approach, shown a willingness to engage with honest brokers and seen the problem holistically,” noted Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator and co-author of the book “Never Split the Difference.” “He has also shown a low tolerance for nonsense and time-wasting activities. He is not afraid of the ‘optics’ of getting directly involved, which is what you want from your leaders.”
This undated photo provided by Jeff Gillis shows his wife, Phan "Sandy" Phan-Gillis. (Courtesy of Jeff Gillis via AP) (The Associated Press)
Since May of 2018, attorney Robert O’Brien has served as the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. His office aims to helm and coordinate diplomatic efforts concerning both hostages and political prisoners and “bring consistent senior-level attention to hostage affairs issues and engage with foreign partners to assist in hostage recovery and maintain a strong ‘no concessions’ policy.”
Officials have made it clear that "no concessions" does not mean "no communication", but the likes of Simon would like to see the Trump team take such a stance even further.
“I argue for a policy of maximum flexibility in order to foster creative solutions when Americans are taken hostage,” he said. “It might sound tough to say ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists,’ but my research suggests it is not a policy that makes Americans safer. There is no reason to telegraph to a terrorist group what you will or won’t do; in fact, it is best to keep them off-balance.”
Indeed, there are still many more U.S. citizens that need to be brought home, although Washington does not release exact numbers as to how many Americans are being unlawfully held abroad. But according to David Isby, a defense and foreign policy analyst, while exact numbers are simply unknowable – he anticipates that from former ISIS areas to across the Middle East and Latin America, the numbers could well be in the triple digits.
In particular, a protrusive piece of the Iranian foreign policy puzzle – since the 1979 Revolution – has centered on playing pawn with a U.S passport.
“It’s a tactic that the Iranians have used for the past 40 years to put pressure on the United,” explained Ali Vaez, the Iran Project Director for the International Crisis Group. “There is not much else the Iranians can do to reciprocate (the pressure) and they also do it because they accuse the U.S. of engaging in similar pressure tactics against them – there is a long list of Iranian nationals who have been arrested in the U.S., accused of going around sanctions which Iran believes is phony.”
Kidnapped Professors: Australian Timothy Weeks and American Kevin King. (provided)
A source closely connected to the hostage case within the U.S. government told Fox News that the message has been clearly communicated to Tehran that if they want to change the atmosphere between the two countries, Washington will not play the haggling for hostages’ game – but releasing hostages is a good start to get to the dialogue table.
Retired FBI agent Bob Levinson is among a pool of a handful of Americans who have disappeared into the bowels of Tehran, and he remains the longest-held hostage in U.S. history, having gone missing in 2007.
Cases additionally being pressed in and around the White House at-present are those of three dual Americans being held in Saudi Arabia.
The U.S State Department confirmed in March that Dr. Walid Fitaihi, a Harvard-trained doctor and prominent television host and motivational speaker, had returned to his homeland in 2006 to build a hospital. But in 2017, he was one of about 200 Saudi citizens to be seized and held at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton hotel in what officials asserted was an attempt to erase corruption.
Freelance journalist Austin Tice, pictured here in an undated photo, was kidnapped in Syria in August 2012. (handout)
“Hostage Affairs are involved but the matter is mostly being handled by Consular Affairs,” one person heavily involved with the case told Fox News, noting that various “back channel” talks using interlocutors had been attempted but failed to produce tangible results, thus those close to Fitaihi turned to the U.S government. “Washington has been putting the pressure on, but we are hoping it will become more of a priority. We’re hoping the President, or Jared Kushner with his tight relations might be able to really take this on.”
Others also being detained in Jeddah include Salah al-Haider – a dual citizen and son of feminist Aziza al-Yousef – and doctor and writer, Bader al-Ibrahim. Both were said to be part of a group of writers and creative writing about political affairs and women’s rights.
Dozens more about being held in other corners of the globe.
Former Marine-turned-journalist Austin Tice went missing in Syria in 2012. Officials believe he was not swept up by terrorists but is likely alive under the thumb of the Bashar al-Assad led government. In Afghanistan, American University professor Kevin King is believed to still be in Taliban clutches having been dramatically taken from Kabul in 2016.
And in Africa, longtime humanitarian and missionary Jeffrey Woodke is at-large. Woodke, a longtime humanitarian and missionary who was abducted by unknown assailants on the evening of October 14, 2016 from the town of Abalak in northern Niger. While no group has publicly claimed responsibility, an array of jihadist militants with al-Qaeda ties operate in the porous border region.
Jeffrey Woodke went missing near the Niger-Mali border in October 2016 ( FBI)
A source close to Woodke, now 58, told Fox News that around a year ago there was some indication that he was still straddling the border between Niger and Mali and was within a 60-mile radius and was being kept alive as something of a “bargaining chip.”
So for all those left languishing, it’s a matter of luck – and strategic hustle.
“I’m not sure what deals are made behind the scenes, but one thing is for sure, this administration has been very effective at bringing Americans home,” added Mohamed Soltan, founder of The Freedom Initiative — a human rights group focused on political prisoners – and once a political prisoner himself in Egypt. “A trend we hope to see grow.”