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Kayla Mueller and the Sad History of Hostage-Taking

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"The nation is grieving Kayla Mueller. Unfortunately, she is not likely to be the last hostage to die in captivity," writes Robin Wright.

Kayla Jean Mueller is not the last American hostage in Syria. The White House confirmed Tuesday that another American is still being held, almost surely in horrid isolation. It may be Austin Tice, a journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012. It is unclear who holds him or why. Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has never mentioned him.

The world made hostage-taking a war crime after World War II. It was codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949. When the practice reemerged in the 1970s, Germany launched an initiative that led the United Nations to pass the International Convention Against Hostage Taking. It was adopted in 1979, six weeks after the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, where 52 diplomats were ultimately held for 444 days.

“It is urgently necessary to develop international cooperation between States in devising and adopting effective measures for the prevention, prosecution and punishment of all acts of taking of hostages as manifestations of international terrorism,” says the convention, which has been signed by 174 nations.

Yet hostages continue to be taken. The FBI warned in October that extremists in Syria are plotting to seize Americans and other Westerners, even crossing borders to get them.

ISIS is not the only danger. Americans are being held against their will elsewhere in the world. The U.S. government does not release numbers for security and privacy reasons.

The value of hostage-taking became evident in Lebanon in the 1980s. The embryo of what became Hezbollah was involved in the suicide bombings of two U.S. embassies in Beirut as well as the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks. The 241 American service members killed represented the largest loss of military life in a single incident since Iwo Jima.

Then Hezbollah shifted tactics, partly because it wanted the release of operatives convicted and imprisoned in Kuwait for bombing a U.S. embassy and other sites there in 1983. Seizing Americans and Europeans—journalists, university professors, even a priest—off the war-torn streets of Beirut had unexpected benefits.

For the Shiite militants, those hostages proved more effective in projecting power, winning prestige among followers, and producing trauma among their foes. After a terrorist bombing, victims were buried and, eventually, life went on. But with hostages, whole nations became caught up in the open-ended drama of a few individuals and their loved ones.

The yellow ribbon became a national symbol with the hostage drama in Tehran between 1979 and 1981. The 52 Americans became household names. Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” was initially a nightly wrap-up of the daily drama; the program survives almost four decades later.

When Hezbollah freed former AP correspondent Terry Anderson after more than six years, he made the cover of Time magazine. Hostages become a cultural phenomenon as well as a national security nightmare.

And seizing them doesn’t require high-tech weaponry or resources, just sleuth and a hideaway.

The nation is grieving Kayla Mueller. Unfortunately, she is not likely to be the last hostage to die in captivity.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire.

About the Author

Robin Wright image

Robin Wright

USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow;
Author and columnist for The New Yorker
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more