Negotiate against, not with terrorists

Editor’s Note: Christopher Voss is the CEO of The Black Swan Group, a business coaching firm that works to resolve business communication challenges with hostage negotiation strategies, and the former FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator. The views expressed are his own.

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Christopher Voss: ISIS is about self-aggrandizement and sensationalism

ISIS trades human beings for money, weapons and publicity, Voss says

CNN  — 

The announcement that Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old held by ISIS, has been killed has thrust the question of how – and whether – to negotiate with extremists back into the spotlight.

Mueller’s grace, demonstrated in the letter she wrote to her family while being held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was inspiring. And although the letter was clearly written under duress, that duress could not diminish the strength and beauty of her spirit. I’m thankful that I found out about her, but I’m also angry at how I did.

Christopher Voss

I am, of course, not alone in being outraged by ISIS’ recent spate of hostage-taking and executions. And that raises another interesting question: Is ISIS miscalculating?

It goes without saying that the so-called Islamic State is no more about Islam than the Nazis were about Christianity. They are about self-aggrandizement and shocking sensationalism. They are commodities dealers. They trade human beings for money, weapons and most importantly, publicity.

But ISIS found themselves in over their heads with the reaction in the Middle East to how they murdered Moath al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot – burning him alive in a cage. Previously, the group had been successful at using its murder videos for recruitment – every outcast in the world seemed a little jealous of the masked miscreant nicknamed “Jihadi John.” In contrast, al-Kasasbeh’s death brought down swift and powerful condemnation of ISIS and its tactics from across the Muslim world.

Yet even as ISIS were broadcasting video of the pilot’s killing, they were also trying to figure out how to deal themselves out of the situation they found themselves in with Mueller. After all, holding a Western female humanitarian aid worker is a delicate negotiation, even for the seasoned commodities dealers that ISIS have become.

Indeed, there was a similar episode back in 2004, when the group’s mentors, al Qaeda in Iraq, held humanitarian aid worker Margaret Hassan. The courageous Hassan was ultimately murdered by her captors, but the backlash to her death was also swift. There is, simply, no good way to spin murdering a woman who isn’t your enemy, who has done you no harm and who has actually done a great deal of good for those in a region you profess to represent.

And spin is what this is all about; if there is the potential for good publicity, then there is also the potential for some very bad publicity.

So what do the opportunistic serial killers masquerading behind masks and a religion do? They see the Jordanian retaliation as an opportunity to rid themselves of a commodity they don’t know what to do with. But the idea that a Jordanian bomb would somehow kill only a hostage and none of their oddball lot is ridiculous. And reading between the carefully worded statements by the White House, it is clear that our government is not buying this story that ISIS peddled, either.

But what should our government be doing now?

For a start, it must recognize that this battle is not just on the ground, it’s three-dimensional. ISIS is telling us they care very deeply about their PR, otherwise they wouldn’t work so hard at it. But it is also important to realize that the most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t know you’re in. With that in mind, we should remember that ISIS started negotiating with the world with their first video – they just don’t want you to know that’s what they’re doing. Instead, they hope the debates veer off into a debate over whether this is a conflict of Muslim versus Christian. And every single time anyone in the Western world wonders publicly why Arab nations aren’t being more vocal in condemning ISIS, we play into their hands. Whatever validity you think that argument has, it’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable that we are even engaging in the very debate and discussion that the enemy wants us to.

And on the issue of hostage taking specifically?

After about a year of slowly getting familiar with the United States government’s actual policy on kidnapping, our policy implementers are finding out that it is actually quite good. The policy says, in essence, that we’re not afraid to talk to anybody.

Nor should we be.

President John F. Kennedy once said we should never negotiate out of fear, yet we should never fear to negotiate. I’d suggest taking that principle one step further: We don’t negotiate with terrorists. We negotiate against them.

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