Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a board member of the James Foley Foundation, which advocates for American hostages. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
On Friday the President tweeted, “‘Donald J. Trump is the greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States. 20 hostages, many in impossible circumstances, have been released in last two years. No money was paid.’ Cheif (sic) Hostage Negotiator, USA!”
It’s unclear whom Trump was quoting in his tweet Friday, but when it comes to the administration’s record of freeing American hostages, the President certainly can celebrate some success.
One such example was the release of Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband, Josh Boyle, nearly five years after they were taken hostage by a Taliban-affiliated group. Coleman and Boyle were kidnapped while they were backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012 and later spirited to Pakistan. In the time she was held captive, Coleman gave birth to three children, all of whom were freed in a 2017 rescue mission orchestrated by the US and Pakistani governments.
The Trump administration put considerable pressure on Pakistan for assistance, and national security officials were motivated to take action due to the three children, according to Trump officials I have spoken to.
As a result of the pressure from American officials, the Pakistanis launched a rescue operation on October 11, 2017, freeing all five hostages unharmed.
In North Korea, American citizens Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang Duk were released last May after being held on arbitrary charges for more than a year. Their release was a result of the negotiations between the Trump administration and the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, ahead of their first summit in Singapore.
The Trump administration, which has prioritized the return of American hostages, has benefited from a policy overhaul initiated by President Obama after the 44th President admitted to several failures.
The Obama administration was criticized for its feckless response when ISIS was holding four American hostages in Syria. The hostages included the freelance journalist James Foley, whose brutal beheading in 2014 was videotaped and circulated online.
According to Foley’s mother, US government officials threatened the family with possible prosecution if they tried to raise money for a ransom for their son’s release because it was against the law to give money to a terrorist group.
Hostages from European countries such as Austria, France or Germany that are known to pay ransoms are more likely to be freed, according to a 2017 report from the think tank New America.
American hostages are “more than twice as likely to remain in captivity, die in captivity, or be murdered by their captors as the average Western hostage,” according to the report, which compiled data on 1,185 hostage cases from 2001 to 2016.
After ISIS killed Foley, his family lobbied for a better outcome for other families. (I sit on the board of the foundation the Foleys created in the name of their son.)
In part because of the Foleys’ efforts, the Obama administration founded the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell in 2015 to better coordinate efforts across various government agencies such as the FBI and State Department that work to free hostages.
Hostage families now have greater leeway to negotiate directly with terrorist groups even as the US government itself maintains a no-ransom policy.
A presidential envoy on hostages was also appointed at the State Department so that the issue now has a primary advocate there.
Those institutions continue to work under the Trump administration and as a result over the past two years, 20 hostages and unjustly held detainees have been released.
While Trump doesn’t seem to have been personally involved in these negotiations, he is ultimately responsible for the successes and failures on his watch. Certainly when it comes to freeing American hostages, the Trump administration has a good story to tell.
Those successes are tempered, however, by the fact that a number of long-standing hostage cases still need to be resolved. Freelance journalist Austin Tice, for one, disappeared in Syria in 2012 and is believed to be held by the Syrian regime.