Is Canada incompetent when a family member is taken hostage by a terrorist group?

There are few horrors worse than learning that a member of your family has been taken hostage by a terrorist group.  With all we know about the depredations these organisations are capable of it is easy to go to the absolute worst thoughts about the fate of loved ones: beatings, rapes, even beheadings.  Truly a terrible, terrible situation that we would not wish on anyone, even terrorists themselves.

It remains a valid question, however, on what is to be done.  Negotiate?  Pay ransom?  Try a rescue attempt? Wait it out?  All of these have their advantages and disadvantages and all of them place those being held in jeopardy.  Furthermore, as few have ever (thankfully) been placed in this position we cannot truly understand what this means to families who will try anything to get their loved ones back.  We know of course that some hostage situations end tragically: witness the barbaric beheadings of two Canadians in the Philippines last year.

It is also easy to understand why families get frustrated by what is being done or not being done.  Government officials are obtuse at the best of times.  ‘Security classification’ can be used to keep information from concerned loved ones.  The process can seem interminably slow and without progress for long periods of time.  And while nothing seems to be going on the  loved one is suffering unknown peril and physical/psychological harm.

One parent has spoken out on this phenomenon:  Lorinda Stewart, the mother of freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout who was held and brutally raped by Al Shabaab in Somalia for over a year, has openly criticised the Canadian government and the RCMP in particular for how her daughter’s case was handled.  Specifically, she claims she was ‘brushed off’ and encouraged not to engage a private negotiator.  She has written a book on her ordeal in the hope that families in similar situations can better manage and seek a successful outcome.

Are Ms. Stewart’s criticisms warranted?  It would be easy to dismiss them as the emotional responses of a very worried mother but it is also necessary to ask: what could have been done differently and was the approach she adopted the ‘right’  one?  There are several aspects to this case that come into play.

  1. First and foremost, while the Canadian government and its agencies are good their remit and capabilities are limited.  We are still a small power on the world stage and we have only so many tools at our disposal.  We are not the Americans with their seemingly endless military and intelligence resources and we can expect our protectors to do only so much.  In this regard it is not a good idea for the RCMP to parade an ‘impeccable record in hostage cases’.
  2. A lot of areas of the world are truly dangerous areas and actions are really hard to effect.  Rescue missions are fraught with uncertainty: knowledge of the local terrain, cooperation with uncertain and perhaps dubious local actors, and the sheer logistics of carrying out such an attempt.  None of this is as easy as it looks in a Hollywood film.
  3. If the decision is made to go with a ‘private’ negotiator, who is this person?  What track record does he have and how can a family make that determination?  There are surely charlatans out there that will prey on a family’s desperation – how can this be avoided?  Do the private actors have either the authority or even the capability to do anything useful?  Is going with this kind of person superior to working with states?
  4. As many governments have stated, including ours, we cannot and must not pay ransom. Giving money to terrorist groups merely furthers their agenda and facilitates future hostage takings or worse – catastrophic terrorist attacks.  So while it is understandable that a family wants to do anything to get a loved one back there are larger considerations at play.

Ms. Stewart does raise some valid questions but we must recognise that hostage situations are all different and even the ‘easiest’ one is fraught with challenges.  Nothing is perfect in this world and we can – and must – learn from what went well and what did not.  At the same time, failing to understand the difficulties inherent in these incidents is not helpful.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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