Diane Foley, the mother of US journalist James Foley slain by Islamic State militants, speaks to reporters outside the Albert V. Bryan Federal Courthouse following the sentencing of El Shafee Elsheikh, in Alexandria, Virginia, on August 19, 2022.

Diane Foley, the mother of US journalist James Foley slain by Islamic State militants, speaks to reporters outside the Albert V. Bryan Federal Courthouse following the sentencing of El Shafee Elsheikh, in Alexandria, Virginia, on August 19, 2022. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

More Is Needed to Deter States That Take American Hostages

Foreign governments are illegally detaining more U.S. citizens than are terror groups.

Published in coordination with the 2023 Global Security Forum, of which Defense One is a media partner.

The illegal detention of Americans abroad, once the near-exclusive purview of rogue groups, is today more widely perpetrated by state actors in deliberate action against the United States. In the past year, 19 nation-states used wrongful detention of U.S. nationals, accounting for 95 percent of the 61 public cases currently tracked by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. 

A decade ago, only China and Iran used this horrific tactic. The change reflects efforts by America’s adversaries to challenge the rules-based international order that arose after the World War II—and it makes it more important than ever to remove the roadblocks and fix the problems that slow the return of American detainees.

These problems were tragically demonstrated by the murder of four American hostages by Islamic State terrorists starting in 2014. While some of their fellow European hostages were released, James Foley, Peter Kassig, Kayla Mueller and Steven Sotloff—along with British and Japanese citizens—were tortured and killed. (Thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians died as well under ISIS rule.) American families fighting for the release of their loved ones were stymied by bureaucracy, given excuses instead of information, and were threatened with prosecution. To date, America has failed to return a single U.S. hostage from ISIS captivity.

But some progress has since been made. In 2015, thanks to the work of the Foley Foundation, former hostages and their families, and a tireless network of hostage advocates, the U.S. government created a hostage enterprise to deal with the hostage-taking of Americans: an interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion cell, a Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, and a White House Hostage Response Group. This structure was codified in 2020 by the Robert A. Levinson Hostage Taking and Accountability Act, named for a former American CIA agent., with the addition of precise criteria for U.S. wrongful detention designation. Last July, President Biden issued an executive order calling the hostage taking and wrongful detention of US nationals a national emergency and extraordinary threat to our national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States. It reinforced responsibilities of the current U.S. hostage enterprise and deterrence tools for those responsible.

In February, lawmakers introduced the bipartisan Supporting Americans Wrongfully or Unlawfully Detained Abroad Act of 2023 to provide financial support to families advocating for loved ones detained overseas. The bill would also help returnees to get physical and mental health care and other social services. 

But there is still much more to be done. The Biden administration must continually review and empower officials and adapt foreign policy to the complexities of wrongful detention by state actors. The administration should streamline and make transparent the process by which the State Department designates wrongfully detained Americans, which allows the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs team to bring them home. Swifter and stronger deterrence measures are critical to curb the cruel practice of international hostage-taking.  

America does not face this challenge alone. Among the people taken hostage and wrongfully detained are citizens of our close allies in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. In 2021, Canada launched the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations. Ottawa has since gathered over 70 endorsements from states across the world, creating an important framework for cooperation and coordination. 

There is also an important role for media, the private sector, individuals, and communities that regularly travel internationally. Newsrooms and media organizations need to educate journalists of the increased threat of international hostage-taking and wrongful detention and the false narratives used by malign actors to justify wrongful detention. Private companies and third-party entities can support investigations, justice and accountability efforts, and negotiations. Finally, people and communities need to understand the increased risk of being taken hostage or unjustly detained overseas, including heeding travel advisories

America’s adversaries will seek to exploit every opportunity to gain diplomatic leverage over the United States, including using American citizens as pawns. The U.S. government must ensure its hostage-and-wrongful-detention policy is equipped for the years ahead.

Diane Foley is the mother of journalist James Foley, who was held hostage and murdered by terrorists in 2014. She is the President and Founder of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation.

Stephanie Foggett is the director of global communications at The Soufan Group and a research fellow at The Soufan Center focused on international security, counterterrorism, and geopolitics.