U.S Citizens Are the Prime Targets for Kidnappers Abroad

An Itempnews investigation shows that no other industrialized country has as many nationals kidnapped or under illegal state-sponsored arrest, at least publicly. The strategy of these governments is to undermine the White House foreign policy. Iran, China, and Venezuela are top in the ranking, with the largest number of Americans held hostages.

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This story was updated on September 19, 2023, to include essential developments regarding unlawfully held Americans overseas.

Update 10/1/22
Update 8/10/2023
Update 9/19/2023

Due to circumstances inherent in the US clout and interests in the world, the US hostage crisis abroad has escalated over the past few years, to be considered one of the largest of its kind among industrialized countries, according to research conducted by Itempnews Project. 

Such a reality is undermining the White House’s foreign policy, where the last four administrations proved to be weak and ineffective in bringing back their nationals, as kidnapping and illegal or unjust detentions of US citizens linger longer.

By January 2022, at least 51 US citizens were held hostages by non-state actors such as terrorist organizations, criminal groups, pirates, or unknown captors, which includes illegal or unjust detentions sponsored by a foreign government, according to Cynthia Loertscher, research director of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, an organization that was born in honor of the independent journalist killed in 2014 by Islamic State terrorists in Syria (ISIS). 

In December 2022, the organization counted 67 cases, of which 40 were considered illegal or improper detentions. 

However, the number of U.S. nationals who continue to be held yearly decreased by 31% after August 1, 2022. This is due to the number of releases that occurred in 2022 (21) and before July 31, 2023 (4). The largest number of publicly known wrongful detention releases in one year occurred in 2022, according to the foundation’s report released on September 15, 2023.

The report’s findings do not include the release of five Americans who returned home on September 19, 2023, as part of a deal with Iran that included the U.S. lifting a freeze on $6 billion in Iranian funds.

Roger Carstens, the president’s special envoy for hostage issues, said in July 2023 that his office handles about 30 to 40 cases. It’s unclear whether he was referring only to unlawful detainee cases or to hostage cases as well. The U.S. considers an American prisoner to be a hostage if he or she is being held by a non-state actor, such as a terrorist group, reported CBS.

No other industrialized country apart from the United States, including the economic powers of the group of 7 (G7), which brings together the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States, has nearly as many citizens kidnapped or under illegal arrest abroad now, according to data compiled by the Itempnews Project. 

Iran, China, Russia, and Venezuela have used illegal arrests of foreigners as a strategy of diplomacy against the West. Altogether, they hold the highest number of US, European and Australian citizens in captivity.  

As late as a few years ago, France had the highest number of nationals held hostages overseas, after the United States, according to terrorism watchdog IntelCenter. 

Most of the French were captured in African countries by mafias or extremist groups such as Boko Haram, linked to Al Qaeda, for ransom and financing of operations. 

The foreign ministries of G7 countries declined to provide statistics on their nationals kidnapped or illegally detained abroad. Requests included letters to the foreign ministries of Spain, Germany, and Australia. 

In most cases, data reviewed by Itempnews were taken from multiple NGOs that lobby for the return of their nationals kidnapped by armed groups or detained on charges of espionage or conspiracy. 

Australia has at least three nationals arrested overseas for national security reasons, most of them by China and Iran.  

In the United States, both the government and government agencies working on these cases are reluctant to share official data on the whereabouts or total number of Americans held overseas. The purpose, among other reasons, is to break a pattern of captors aiming to turn their victims into “weapons deterrents” or “bargaining chips.” 

“Surely there may be many more, but we speak on behalf of those whose relatives have reported the abduction, while others prefer to keep it under wraps,” Loertscher said. 

Between 2015 and 2017, James O’Brien, the first Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and who helped establish the office under President Barack Obama’s mandate, “worked for the safe return of 100 US citizens,” the White House said in October 2021 when appointing the veteran diplomat as Sanctions Policy Coordinator during the Joe Biden administration.

It was the first time in recent years that the government offered a round number of Americans who have been held hostage overseas.

The National Security Council declined to comment on this matter and referred questions to the State Department, where a spokesperson said it is a policy “not to disclose numbers of unjustly detained hostages or U.S. citizens.”

“To the extent that the detention of a US citizen abroad is not determined to be ‘unjust,’ the Department is working to provide all appropriate consular assistance,” the spokesman said.      

In line with the government’s endeavors to recover a hostage, the Foley Foundation, as well as experts in the field, distinguish between hostage cases and illegal or unjust detention by a foreign government. 

Based on such data, most Americans are being held by government authorities that in most cases brought trumped-up criminal charges.

However, the prudence with which the State Department and the White House have historically managed kidnapping and illegal arrest of Americans forms part of a “silent diplomacy” often perceived as exaggerated or as a sign of forgetfulness by the public and the victims’ relatives.

For some, this must change. For others, it is better that not.  

“There are numerous challenges that comes by alluding having media attention on these issues for Americans to be aware. Ultimately, it’s the public that’s lobbying, that’s asking for the government’s response, and demanding officials to prioritize, this issue,” Loertscher said. 

In the courses of time, most of the country’s media have covered special hostage cases involving citizens kidnapped or unjustly imprisoned abroad, but the lack of continuity of the cases often contributes to the public’s lack of interest and even oblivion.

Marshall Billingslea, former Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing at the US Department of the Treasury during the Donald Trump administration, admits that “there is not enough press coverage or interest in the details of hostage situations and much more needs to be done to expose the behavior of regimes that take innocent people.”

“There is a time for non-public discussions, such as details about how the US government is working to secure the release of its hostages, but I think the country needs to know, for example, what the Iranians are doing with our hostages,” Billingslea said in an interview. He is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, focusing on illicit finance and arms control with the Kleptocracy Initiative.

President Trump appointed Billingslea Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control (Photo/D.S)

“Sometimes you can create if it becomes a major public case, terrorists seeking an international crisis and clinging to greater demands,” said Brian Jenkins, a prominent consultant to the RAND Corporation and author of numerous books and reports on issues related to terrorism analysis.

There is a question in the air. Can the American people blame any administration for holding hostages overseas? 

“The simple answer is no,” finishes off Jenkins, who worked together with the government to solve some hostage cases in the past. 

“We should keep in mind that between 40 and 90 million Americans travel abroad each year. At least ten million are expatriates living or working outside the country. This does not include millions of permanent residents who are abroad or Americans with dual citizenship in their respective countries,” Jenkins added.

Jenkins does not downplay other complex aspects of government-to-government relations that have led to dozens of Americans in captivity in recent years.

“There is the fact that the United States is perceived as a wealthy or powerful country, so extremists or criminals kidnap citizens of our nation to gain political influence over their local government, as happened in the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America and the Middle East, and until recently in the Iraq war,” Jenkins said.   

During the George W. Bush administration, US officials gained experience in responding to these events while dealing with an alarming increase in kidnappings in Iraq after the start of the war in that country.  

Between 2003 and 2007, 43 Americans were abducted on Iraqi soil, 14 of whom were executed, including Nicholas Berg, whose murder was videotaped and shared widely on the Internet, a preamble to what would become the Islamic State’s (ISIS) barbaric propaganda method.

Billingslea, who also served as Trump’s gun control negotiator, agrees that the global perspective of the US society and the country’s interests around the world are often of the essence to understand why so many US citizens are in captivity.

“The problem right now is that you don’t see a (forceful) approach by the Biden administration to bring American hostages home and we are projecting weaknesses around the world, and that is incentivizing hostage-taking,” the former official criticized.

Billingslea recalled the response of the Trump administration to the case of US pastor Andrew Brunson, imprisoned in 2016 in Turkey on charges of terrorism and espionage. In 2018 he was released following an escalation of tensions between Ankara and Washington.

Turkey’s stubborn refusal to release the evangelical pastor compelled Trump to impose sanctions on Turkish senior government officials, and the US Department of the Treasury doubled tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from that country, precipitating the fall of the domestic legal tender versus the dollar and financial standoff.

“At this point, I have seen no evidence that the United States has raised as a precondition in its negotiations with Iran the return of American hostages who have been taken by the regime in Tehran,” Billingslea criticized. 

When President Obama signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the fine print did not include a key point in the bilateral relationship: The disappearance in March 2007 of Robert Levinson, a former FBI and DEA agent who traveled to Iran’s Kish Island for a CIA intelligence mission. 

The image sent in 2013 by Levinson’s captors shows him asking for help (Photo/FBI)

Levinson is the longest-held US hostage held by a nation hostile to Washington. But his situation reflects the Iranian way, opting over the past 40 years for arbitrary detentions of Westerners as an appendage of its foreign policy.

The hostage crisis in Iran on November 4, 1979, traumatized the memory of the United States forever. On that day, dozens of Iranian students stormed in the US Embassy in Tehran and took hold of 66 people. A total of 52 US diplomats were held by their captors for 444 days.

Since then, the State Department has been pondering on the security of its diplomatic officials and missions around the world for fear of a recurrence.

“Iran has been a master manipulator on the geopolitical stage and has been using European and American hostages as pawns for more than 40 years, achieving leverage in financial payments and prisoner exchanges, in what is otherwise a very asymmetrical power relationship with the West,” warned John Sanderson and Susan Morgan, renowned Australian scholars, in an essay from the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

U.S. hostage being paraded in front of the public in Teheran (Photo/S.D)

Like many dual nationals imprisoned in Iran, their cases are linked to the Islamic Republic’s relations with other countries. For experts and victims, this somewhat modern state-sponsored terrorism.

“Foreign governments with a taste for Western hostages include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Egypt, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela, with the all-time worst offenders arguably being Iran and China,” Sanderson and Morgan added. 

In recent years, US and Western officials have witnessed China implementing a policy of arbitrary detention and coercive bans on the departure of foreigners to further its foreign policy.

This was mirrored in November 2021, when Beijing authorities allowed siblings, Victor and Cynthia Liu, both Sino-US citizens, to return to the United States after being prevented from leaving China for more than three years. 

Their return came shortly after the Justice Department made a deal with Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, allowing her to return to China after nearly three years of house arrest in Canada. 

To speak up or not

While millions of Americans are unaware of the captivity of their countrymen, and in many cases, it is counterproductive to spread the word, the dilemma for the relatives of hostages and negotiators is how long you they should just wait and see. 

For the past two years, Mark Denman has been trying every day from his Twitter account to catch the attention of the White House and its high-ranking officials to secure a greater commitment for the release of Airan Berry and his brother Luke Denman. 

Both of them, former members of the US Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, were arrested as mercenaries in 2019 during a failed operation to overthrow Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. 

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks before a group of soldiers (Photo/PV)

“The last administration did nothing for us. This administration so far has done nothing either. Some people have agreed to meet with us. However, when we meet, they say they are very sorry for the situation, but they don’t say anything else,” complained Denman, who founded the NGO American Rescue Coalition to push for Airan and Luke’s return. 

“While asking questions and telling our story, (government officials) nod their heads and say nothing that gives us information or how they intend to help. At this point, I have no interest in spending money to travel to Washington and talk to them further, as it is a waste of time and money,” Mark Denman lamented in response to e-mailed questions. 

In the Western Hemisphere, Venezuela displayed the largest number of US citizens under arrest until October first, 2022. seven in total.

State Department said on October 1st, 2022 that Venezuela freed seven Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the United States released two nephews of President Maduro’s wife who had been jailed for years on drug smuggling convictions.

“We welcome the release from Venezuela of six wrongfully detained U.S. citizens — Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, José Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Matthew Heath, and Osman Khan — as well as U.S. legal permanent resident Jose Pereira”, the State Department said in a statement.

Those freed include five employees of Houston-based Citgo (Vadell, Zambrano, both Zambrano, Toledo, and Pereira).

The White House views these detentions as illegal and politically driven by the Maduro government to exert pressure on the United States.

Luke Denman (r) Airan Berry (Photo/Mark Denman)

Also released were a former Marine, Matthew Heath, charged in 2020 with terrorism-related crimes and arms trafficking, and a Florida man, Osman Khan, who was arrested in January 2022.

On March 8, 2022, the Venezuelan government freed two jailed Americans, including an oil executive imprisoned alongside colleagues for more than four years.

Gustavo Cárdenas and Jorge Fernández were released following a secret visit to Venezuela by top officials from the Biden administration, the White House’s first trip to the country in twenty years.

Cárdenas was arrested in 2017 as part of the so-called CITGO-6, and “he has endured five years of hardship and imprisonment at the hands of an unjust system,” President Biden said in a statement.

Fernandez was detained in February 2021 near the border with Colombia after he was found in possession of a drone, whose use is restricted in Venezuela. He was accused of terrorism.

Still have been imprisoned in Caracas two former Green Berets since 2019.

Response from home

The US Government governs its current overseas hostage policy under a directive passed in 2015 by President Obama which revisited how future administrations should respond to and coordinate these events. 

The revision came in the wake of several tragedies resulting in Americans being held overseas by terrorist groups. In the summer of 2014, American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig were killed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. 

Three main entities were established within the government to deal with hostage issues: The Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, operating within the FBI; the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, within the State Department, and a response team in form of deputy committee, within the National Security Council.

The White House made a distinction between the concessions made by private parties to terrorists, mostly ransom payments and even direct contact, and the broader agreements that may be reached by any administration, including military actions and other foreign policy priorities, such as prisoner exchange.

The White House made a distinction between the concessions made by private parties to terrorists (Photo/Flicker W.H)

However, while European governments quietly pay billionaire ransoms to the terrorist groups and corrupt regimes that kidnap their citizens, the United States refuses to negotiate and approve such a practice.

“I firmly believe that our policy concerning kidnapping and hostage-taking has to be fully maintained. It is essential that we do not offer any concessions to the hostage-takers because, if you start making concessions, you further incentivize hostage-taking,” former Assistant Secretary Billingslea said.

Congresspersons have been publicly and privately pressurizing the State Department for answers on these cases, as national security and foreign policy are increasingly affected.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee closely follows up the cases of those detained and imprisoned abroad and works to ensure that the intelligence community has the capabilities and resources it needs to support the return of Americans,” Senator Mark Warner, D-Virginia, who chairs the committee told Itempnews. 

Senator Mark Warner, D-Virginia

The most recent events of Americans released by their captors abroad included journalist Danny Fenster in Myanmar in November 2021, and 16 missionaries kidnapped for two months by a gang in Haiti, who returned to the United States last December. 

With regard to the missionaries, it is not known if there was a ransom payment by their relatives or the Church to which they belong, since the captors demanded one million dollars per person. 

Fenster was imprisoned for more than six months after a Myanmar military court sentenced him to 11 years in prison on charges of sedition and terrorism, interpreted by the State Department as illegal detention to exert pressure on Biden for his criticism of that country’s military regime. 

The global consensus by most of the countries that are victims of this form of “hostage diplomacy” has materialized under a Declaration pioneered by Canada in February 2021. Thus far, the document, aimed at curbing the use of arbitrary detentions in State-to-State relations, has 67 signatory countries.

However, responsiveness of the governments themselves has been the stumbling block in the current crisis.  

Billingslea recalled a proposal he made to the Trump-era Treasury Department to address the growing threat of kidnapping and illegal arrest of Americans abroad. However, bureaucracy prevailed.

“One of the efforts I devised that was unsuccessful in the negotiation within the government was an executive order authorizing the imposition of (financial) sanctions related to kidnapping for ransom, and, unfortunately, that effort has been stalled by inner strife in the government bureaucracy,” the former official lambasted. 

This initiative “is something that the Biden administration should issue against networks and individuals and entities involved in kidnapping situations” as an innovative way for the United States to respond. 

James W. Foley Legacy Foundation (JWFLF) considers the detention of an American to be unlawful or wrongful based on criteria found in the Robert Levinson Hostage-Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act adopted into law in December 2020. Cases in which a foreign government acknowledges that it has detained an American may be considered unlawful or wrongful if:

  • U.S. officials receive or possess credible information indicating innocence of the detained individual;
  • The individual is being detained solely or substantially because he or she is a U.S. national

JWFLF uses the conventional definition of a hostage as a person detained and under the threat of death, injury, or continued detention by an individual or group in order to compel a third party to do (or abstain from doing) any act as an explicit or implicit condition of the person’s release. 

The total number of cases mentioned in this work includes public information provided by the foundation on cases of US hostages and illegal or unjust detention.

Editing: Carlos Tagliafico

Copy editing: Conchita Delgado

Update 8/10/2023: The United States and Iran reached an agreement on August 10, 2023, to secure the release of five imprisoned Americans in exchange for several imprisoned Iranians and eventual access to $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues. Iranian authorities transferred the five Iranian Americans from prison to house arrest. The detainees are Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, and Morad Tahbaz, all imprisoned on unsubstantiated espionage charges, and two others whose names have not been released by their families. According to the New York Times, one of the Americans is a scientist, and the other a businessman.

Update 9/13/2023: Five Americans released from Iranian custody returned to U.S. soil Tuesday, Sept. 19, ending a years-long nightmare for them and their families. The five, who had all been designated by the United States as unjustly detained, were released as part of a broader deal initiated by President Biden that included the U.S. unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian assets. The three men included in the deal – Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, and Siamak Namazi – had all been detained for more than five years. In 2015, Namazi was arrested. Publicly unknown are the identities of the other two Americans.

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