U.S. Citizens Kidnapped by the Islamic State
John W. Rollins, Specialist in Terrorism and National Security (firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-5529)
Liana Rosen, Specialist in International Crime and Narcotics (email@example.com, 7-6177)
February 13, 2015 (IN10167)
On February 10, 2015, President Barack Obama acknowledged that U.S. citizen Kayla Mueller was
killed while held in captivity by the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (IS). This was the fourth
death of an American taken hostage by the Islamic State: Abdul-Rahman Kassig (previously Peter
Kassig), James Foley, and Steven Sotloff were also killed. The death of Mueller and the graphic videos
depicting the deaths of the other three Americans have generated debate about the U.S. government's
role and capabilities for freeing hostages.
In light of these deaths, some policymakers have called for a reevaluation of U.S. policy on
international kidnapping responses. Questions include whether it is effective and properly coordinated
and implemented, should be abandoned or modified to allow for exceptions and flexibility, or could
benefit from enhancements to improve global adherence.
The killing of U.S. citizens by the Islamic State may be driven by a variety of underlying motives.
Reports describe the group as inclined toward graphic and public forms of violence for purposes of
intimidation and recruitment. It is unclear whether the Islamic State would have released its Americans
hostages in exchange for ransom payments or other concessions. Foley's family, for example, disclosed
that the Islamic State demanded a ransom of 100 million euros ($132 million). The Islamic State
reportedly demanded $6.6 million for Mueller's release. For its part, the Islamic State claims to have
carried out the killings of Kassig, Foley, and Sotloff in retaliation against military intervention in the
region. Further raising questions regarding its fundraising motivations, the Islamic State beheaded two
Japanese hostages, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, after a $200 million ransom demand went
unfulfilled in early 2015. The killing of a captured Jordanian pilot who was supporting the U.S.-led
coalition against the Islamic State also called into question the group's true desire to exchange a
hostage for a prisoner being held for 10 years by the Jordanian government.
The Islamic State may be inspiring others to conduct kidnappings and beheadings. In September 2014,
a French citizen, Herve Gourdel, was kidnapped and murdered by a group in Algeria that has claimed
IS allegiance. Two Germans are being held for ransom in the Philippines by another group that
supports the Islamic State. Some policymakers are concerned that individuals in the United States may
also be inspired by the Islamic State's tactics. Meanwhile, Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's Syria-based affiliate,
released U.S. citizen Peter Curtis (reportedly without ransom).
It is possible that other U.S. citizens are held hostage by terrorist groups in the region, including Austin
Tice, who has been missing in Syria since 2012. The State Department has identified at least 72 U.S.
citizens kidnapped by international terrorists between 2005 and 2013; actual numbers may be higher.
U.S. Policy and Questions for Congress
A central issue to U.S. responses to IS kidnappings is the "no concessions" policy. According to this
policy, the U.S. government will seek the safe return of its citizens, but rules out any "acts of
concession" to kidnappers, including the "benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, [or] policy changes."
Moreover, ransom payments to terrorists could be a violation of U.S. criminal law and, in some cases, a
violation of U.S. and U.N. counterterrorism sanctions.
In March 2014, Under Secretary of the Treasury David Cohen reiterated the U.S. government's
justification for its "no concessions" policy:
Refusing to pay ransoms or to accede to other terrorist demands is the surest way to convince
potential hostage-takers that they will not be rewarded for their crime.... Although this may appear to
be cold-hearted and is often agonizingly difficult to sustain in practice, plain logic and long experience
demonstrate that this policy has led to fewer Americans being taken hostage....
Earlier, in a 2012 discussion of international kidnapping for ransom, Cohen described several alternative
responses to terrorist hostage situations, including conducting rescue operations and applying targeted
financial sanctions against kidnappers. The Treasury Department has designated several IS members
for financial sanction, one of whom reportedly oversaw an IS prison facility where foreign hostages
may have been held. The Obama Administration has also acknowledged that the U.S. military
attempted in July to rescue Foley and others held captive by the Islamic State. Another series of failed
U.S. military rescue attempts in late 2014 to free American Luke Somers from Al Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula (AQAP) further highlighted the risks associated with such operations.
At the international level, some observers describe a lack of coherence and consistency in handling
hostage cases. Although the United Kingdom adheres to a "no concessions" policy, reports suggest that
several other European governments have paid large ransoms to terrorist groups, including IS and Al
In Congress, questions about U.S. policy on kidnapping have arisen during hearings focused on the
Islamic State. On November 1, 2014, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy responded to
congressional questions about this issue by stating, "The President recently directed a comprehensive
review of U.S. government policy on overseas terrorist-related hostages cases, with specific emphasis
on examining family-engagement, intelligence collection, and diplomatic engagement policies."
There is a long history of legislative debate on kidnapping policy and existing statutes on kidnapping
and terrorist financing (e.g., 18 U.S.C. Ch. 55, 18 U.S.C. 2339A-C, and 22 U.S.C. 2656f). As policy
makers continue to consider these issues, key questions include:
To what extent is the U.S. government responsible for the safe return of U.S. citizens held
hostage by the Islamic State? Are U.S. government agencies sufficiently coordinated to address
international kidnapping events?
Has the "no concessions" policy been successful in deterring the Islamic State from targeting and
seizing U.S. citizens as hostages? Are there circumstances in which exceptions to the "no
concessions" policy may be warranted?
To what extent are ransom payments a primary source of IS financing? What are the challenges
associated with U.S. government efforts to track, block, and ultimately confiscate or retrieve
To what extent are other nations' practices consistent with the U.S. "no concessions" policy?
What options do U.S. policy makers have to deter foreign governments from financing terrorist
groups, including the Islamic State, through the payment of ransom demands?
Related Issues Before Congress:
Terrorism and Counterterrorism Policy
Middle East and North Africa