The challenge of hostage situations

Now that the immediate horror of what happened to John Ridsdel has passed – not that this heinous act will ever be forgotten – many have turned their attention to what the Canadian government could or should have done to save the life of this Canadian citizen.  Debates of this nature are inevitable as everyone seems to have an opinion on actions taken, or not taken.  I have read innumerable analyses and seen a few interviews on CBC, some involving people with relevant backgrounds and expertise and others not so qualified. To this interminable discussion I cautiously add my own views, from the perspective both as a former intelligence analyst for over three decades in Canada but also as a human being.

With respect to the question to whether the Canadian government should have paid the ransom demanded by Abu Sayyaf Group, the simple answer is no.  There are many terrorist and criminal organisations that engage in kidnapping and I agree with most experts that giving in to blackmail only serves to encourage others to follow suit.

But I have not seen or heard anyone mention the fact that the decision to pay or not may actually be irrelevant.  By this I mean that groups of this ilk will continue to forcibly capture innocent people regardless of whether governments or individuals choose to gain their release in exchange for cash.  Why?  Because that is what some terrorist groups, like ASG, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and others, do.  Kidnapping is one of the actions they take to spread fear (remember terrorism is the act of instilling terror/fear).  Killing hostages is one more way – albeit an even more horrifying way – to achieve their mission.  I am not sure that paying ransom or not will have any effect on the future of the use of this tactic.  We also have to acknowledge that in some cases the delivery of money may be moot as the group may go on to kill its hostages anyway.  This may sound harsh and unfeeling but I think it is realistic.

That is what the professional me says.  The human me accepts that families and friends have the right to do whatever they can to get their loved ones back.  Some governments – the US for example – go so far as to charge anyone who negotiates release with a terrorist group.  I find this deplorable.  While I have fortunately never been in a situation where someone dear to me has been taken hostage and I pray I never am, who am I to tell a family to refrain from taking action to secure their family member, no matter how remote the chances of success?  Families must make their own decisions and we have no right to criticise their choices.

So what should governments do then and what should our expectations be?  I read where the RCMP has launched an investigation into this barbaric crime with a view to bringing those involved to justice.  I wholly support this move. Some may pooh-pooh it, saying that it has little chance of success: perhaps, but it is what the Canadian government can and should do.  The Mounties can work with their partners in the Philippines and elsewhere to gather intelligence on the perpetrators, locate them, and apprehend them.  There is also the possibility of an attempt to rescue the other Canadian hostage, Robert Hall, and his fellow hostages in an operation involving Canadian special forces.  Yes, this is all hard and it may be nigh impossible but it should be considered.  Canada’s spy agencies can also leverage their resources as well as those of their partners to collect intelligence on who and where the terrorists are.  Organisations like CSIS are constantly criticised for working and exchanging information with foreign agencies but situations like this seem to me to be no-brainers.

In the end we have to accept that crises like these are really hard.  There are no easy answers, despite what some may say.  Canadians and others will continue to be held by terrorist groups: some will be released, some will be rescued, others will die.  The Canadian government and its constituent agencies will do everything in their power to save our citizens but will not always succeed.   We need to support the efforts made, not carp from the sidelines or play Monday morning quarterback, resorting to slamming the Feds for what is done or not done.


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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