Daesh fighters have taken hostage over 100 foreigners in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere since 2012. The kidnappings drew international attention in August 2014, when American journalist James Foley was decapitated and a video of his death was posted online. But the pattern of kidnappings and gruesome videos distributed by violent Salafi-jihadists extends back over a decade to the killing of Daniel Pearl in 2002. This article traces shifts in the strategic rationale of Al Qaeda and Daesh for beheading Western hostages. It argues that terrorists altered their calculations on foreign hostages beginning in 2012 and U.S. counterterrorism policy does not take these shifts into account.
In August 2014, American journalist James Foley was decapitated by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, often referred to by its Arabic acronym Daesh. The beheading was videotaped and posted online for audiences around the world to see. Horrifying as Foley's death was, he was only the first of many foreign journalists, diplomats, aid workers, and priests kidnapped and sometimes decapitated by Daesh. Six months later, in February 2015, Daesh fighters burned alive a captured Jordanian pilot. As it did with Foley, Daesh used social media to distribute a video of Muath al-Kasasbeh's death, thus magnifying its shock and horror. With the videos posted online, viewers could witness the ruthlessness and determination of Daesh for themselves.
In June 2015, President Obama revised the U.S. government's approach to international kidnappings and hostage-taking. While the White House continues to adhere to its “no concessions” policy of not negotiating with terrorists, it now refrains from prosecuting families who choose to pay ransoms demanded by their loved ones' kidnappers. This revision was made after significant pressure from those families; while the families watched other hostages freed, the U.S. government not only refused to negotiate with Daesh but also warned families not to do so independently.
This article argues that additional changes should be made to U.S. counterterrorism policy to account for recent shifts in terrorists' decision making on foreign hostages. Terrorists—at least those associated with Al Qaeda and Daesh—altered their calculations on foreign hostages beginning in 2012. Rather than simply seek local intimidation, prisoner exchanges, or resources, terrorists started to view foreign hostages as a means to humiliate their adversaries. This shift in calculation predates Daesh and was enabled by the widespread availability and use of social media. Terrorists no longer had to rely on traditional media outlets to articulate, interpret, or broadcast their demands. They could present their narratives directly to audiences. Social media also magnified competition between terrorists, contributing to more widespread brutality. Thus, this article argues that Americans should expect to see terrorists continue to kidnap and kill U.S. citizens abroad.