Nobody within the room knew that inside months, they might be grappling with a far bigger disaster in actual life.
The simulation was a part of a push to deepen partnerships forward of a “worst-case state of affairs,” mentioned Christopher O’Leary, the previous director of the U.S. job pressure on hostage restoration. “However no person envisioned it could possibly be this dangerous.”
The present hostage disaster in Gaza is in contrast to some other, specialists say. Whereas there have been earlier conditions involving massive numbers of hostages, and even hostages from quite a few international locations, there was nothing fairly like this: a mass kidnapping of a whole lot of individuals of greater than two dozen nationalities, together with youngsters and the aged, all now hidden in a conflict zone underlaid with tunnels.
There are about 240 hostages being held in Gaza, in response to Israeli officers. No less than 9 Individuals and one authorized everlasting resident are believed to be amongst them. One is a 3-year-old youngster whose mother and father have been killed within the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas on Israel, which left about 1,200 folks useless. Two American ladies have been beforehand launched by Hamas on Oct. 20.
The disaster represents a significant take a look at for the Biden administration and for U.S. hostage coverage. In recent times, a lot of the federal government’s efforts have centered on Individuals detained by states akin to Russia, Iran, Venezuela and China on unfounded expenses, resulting in offers that introduced house basketball participant Brittney Griner and, extra lately, 5 Individuals held by Iran.
Earlier than final month, terrorist teams had not taken any Individuals hostage this yr, in response to a current report by the James W. Foley Legacy Basis, an advocacy group that works for the discharge of U.S. residents held overseas.
In follow, the U.S. authorities deploys a variety of instruments to convey house hostages and detainees, specialists say, together with negotiating prisoner swaps, coverage adjustments and entry to funds through third events. The one exception: It doesn’t pay ransoms to teams it has designated as terrorist organizations, akin to Hamas.
America has additionally labored to mount rescue operations, though such missions are invariably dangerous. These efforts are typically led by overseas companions: About half of the publicly reported missions to get well American hostages over the previous twenty years have been carried out by the army forces of different international locations, in response to analysis by Danielle Gilbert, a political scientist at Northwestern College.
U.S. officers have mentioned that negotiations over the discharge of Israeli and overseas hostages held by Hamas are making progress, elevating hopes that an preliminary deal could possibly be introduced quickly, whilst Israel continues a relentless army operation that has killed greater than 11,000 folks in Gaza.
“Qatar is speaking to Hamas, Israel is speaking to Qatar, the USA is speaking to each to attempt to transfer ahead to a degree the place hostages may be launched,” White Home nationwide safety adviser Jake Sullivan mentioned Monday. He cautioned that the USA had “restricted visibility into each the whereabouts of hostages and their situation.”
Hamas has agreed in precept to launch no less than 50 ladies and youngsters and Israel is now contemplating the proposal, in response to an Arab diplomat aware of the talks, who spoke on the situation of anonymity to debate delicate negotiations that would crumble.
In alternate for the hostages, Israel would comply with a three-to-five-day pause “in place” within the preventing, elevated humanitarian help to Gaza, and the discharge of an unspecified variety of ladies and youngsters held in Israeli prisons.
On Tuesday, President Biden was requested by a reporter if he had a message for households awaiting information of the captives. “Dangle in there,” he mentioned. “We’re coming.”
The present U.S. framework for responding to hostage conditions was instituted in 2015 in response to perceived failures within the dealing with of the instances of Individuals captured by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Three have been beheaded, their executions videotaped.
The adjustments included extra assist for the households of Individuals held captive; the creation of the Hostage Restoration Fusion Cell, the interagency job pressure previously headed by O’Leary; the naming of a particular presidential envoy for hostage affairs; and the formation of a bunch on the Nationwide Safety Council to supervise hostage issues.
Every of these our bodies is deeply engaged within the disaster in Gaza, former officers say. Steven Gillen, the deputy particular presidential envoy for hostage affairs, traveled to Israel with Secretary of State Antony Blinken within the first days after the assault and has remained there, a State Division spokesperson confirmed.
Relations of Individuals held in Gaza say they’re heartened by the dedication they’ve seen on the highest ranges to bringing their family house.
Final month, Biden held an emotional video name with the households of lacking Individuals. He listened to every individual’s story in flip as they raged or wept with anguish, mentioned Rachel Goldberg, whose 23-year-old son Hersh Goldberg-Polin was captured. In a video filmed by a Hamas militant, Goldberg-Polin may be seen climbing right into a truck, his left arm partly blown off.
“I’m only a mother who desires her son house,” Goldberg mentioned. “I don’t faux to know the intricacies of the diplomacy that’s required to create these offers, however I put plenty of belief within the administration.”
Different family echoed that sentiment. American officers have been communicative and supportive, mentioned David Siegel, a physician in Rochester, N.Y., whose youthful brother Keith, 64, a U.S. citizen, and sister-in-law Adrienne, 62, an Israeli citizen, are believed to be among the many hostages.
Siegel mentioned members of his household had additionally met with Sullivan, the nationwide safety adviser, and Blinken. Roger Carstens, the particular presidential envoy for hostage affairs, has given households his cellphone quantity.
“You have got full engagement from the U.S. authorities,” mentioned Cynthia Loertscher, the director of analysis and hostage advocacy on the James W. Foley Legacy Basis. “That makes an unbelievable distinction.”
The central position being performed by Qatar within the negotiations over the discharge of hostages comes as no shock, specialists and former officers say. In recent times, Qatar has emerged as an important middleman within the launch of quite a few American hostages and detainees, from Afghanistan to Iran to Mali.
O’Leary mentioned that Qatar helped dealer a negotiated launch of a hostage held by the Haqqani community, a terrorist group in Afghanistan, one thing he described as a “very troublesome case.” Qatari officers have been additionally concerned in two hostage instances in Mali and Niger, he mentioned.
“This can be a position that they’re embracing,” mentioned O’Leary, who’s now an government on the Soufan Group, a personal safety consultancy. “In the event that they wish to discuss to the Tuareg tribe in northern Mali, they are going to be far more efficient than we shall be.”
However Qatar’s relationship with Hamas — a few of whose leaders reside within the Persian Gulf state — can also be controversial. “Right here’s what I’d say to detractors: Due to Qatar, we’ve got a channel with Hamas. We’ve got a channel with the Taliban. We’ve got a channel with the Iranians,” mentioned Christopher Costa, a former senior director for counterterrorism on the Nationwide Safety Council who has labored on quite a few hostage instances.
One former U.S. official, who spoke on the situation of anonymity to debate delicate issues, mentioned that typically Qatar is “too useful” in hostage conditions. He mentioned that there are instances the place the USA suspects that Qatar has made ransom funds for American hostages by itself, an funding it considers in its self-interest.
Previous hostage conditions have proved perilous for American presidents: President Jimmy Carter’s failure to rescue Individuals held for greater than a yr in Iran helped torpedo his bid for reelection. President Ronald Reagan secretly offered arms to Iran to enlist its help within the launch of Individuals held in Lebanon, an operation that erupted into the Iran-contra affair.
“We had two presidents who have been politically wounded by hostage conditions,” mentioned Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the Rand Corp.
Jenkins has been concerned in learning and resolving hostage conditions for 50 years. Within the early Nineteen Seventies, amid a wave of kidnappings of U.S. diplomats, a senior State Division official approached Jenkins and requested him a query that has stayed with him ever since: How do you cut price for human life? It isn’t only a query of techniques, Jenkins mentioned, however a profound philosophical dilemma.
Jenkins has researched the effectiveness of the acknowledged U.S. “no concessions” coverage — first publicly articulated in 1973 by President Richard M. Nixon — and located that it didn’t yield any noticeable decline within the variety of kidnappings of Individuals. Nevertheless, he mentioned, it may be argued that extra kidnappings may need occurred in its absence, as a result of “readily yielding can encourage repetition.”
Within the Gaza hostage disaster, the image is additional difficult by the massive variety of international locations whose residents are being held captive, and by the Israeli military’s invasion of the territory.
It’s a problem to coordinate and preserve a unified method to negotiations when there are such a lot of nations concerned, mentioned Gilbert, the Northwestern College political scientist. “There are sometimes incentives to cheat when it’s your citizen whose life is on the road,” she mentioned.
On the hostage simulation held in Qatar in July, the assembled Qatari and American officers wrestled with the query of whether or not to mount a rescue operation utilizing Particular Forces. Costa, the previous NSC official, was current on the train, and mentioned the Qataris wished to offer extra time to negotiations, whereas the Individuals favored motion. Generally, he mentioned, it’s a must to do each.
“The world has by no means confronted a extra vexing hostage scenario that’s inextricably woven with the likelihood for regional conflict,” he mentioned. However “I’m very cautiously optimistic that we’ll convey extra hostages house. I simply can’t let you know what number of.”
Karen DeYoung and Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.