The number of Americans who are wrongfully held by state actors such as China, Iran and Russia has seen a dramatic increase compared to a decade ago, according to a new study that finds a growing list of nations are targeting U.S. nationals to exert political leverage over Washington.
The study, released Wednesday by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, details how a practice once primarily carried out by terrorist organizations and other militant groups has increasingly become a tool of adversarial governments, resulting in the detention of everyone from WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia to others like Marine Corps veteran Matthew Heath in Venezuela.
The analysis finds that at least 153 Americans have been wrongfully detained by state actors since 2001, a figure the study's authors describe as an emerging threat to national security given the steep price foreign governments typically demand for a captive's release.
And with an average of 11 new U.S. nationals being detained each year — and the number of releases unable to keep pace with the number of new captives — the challenge facing U.S. negotiators is only building. From 2001 to 2011, roughly five U.S. nationals on average were being wrongfully held each year, according to the Foley Foundation, which advocates for the release of Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained. Since 2012, that number has grown to an average of about 34 per year.
"As Secretary Blinken has said, working to bring U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained is something he is personally focused on, and he has no higher priority as Secretary of State," a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
The department has also added a new risk indicator to travel advisories — the "D" indicator — to warn citizens about the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government. "We are making this change to highlight the elevated risk of wrongful detention in particular countries that have engaged in this practice," according to the statement.
Six countries account for almost two-thirds of cases
The increase in cases corresponds with what the study calls "a worrisome trend" in the number of nations that are holding Americans. From 2001 to 2005, just four countries were wrongfully detaining U.S. nationals; this year the number stands at 19.
"The number of countries taking our people and the length of detention, all of these things are increasing," says Diane Foley, who established the Foley Foundation after her son, the journalist James Foley, was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and later killed by ISIS. "So it's something I'm afraid we're going to have to figure out how to deal with as a country."
The majority of incidents involve nations where the U.S. has extensive sanctions in place: Iran, China, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria and Russia. Taken together, they account for nearly two-thirds of all wrongful detention cases.
When it comes to how long Americans are held in captivity, the study paints an uneven picture. In 63% of cases, a wrongful detention has ended in a release, rescue or escape.
Researchers found that negotiations in the first year are critical. Among those whose cases ended in release, 56% were detained for a year or less. Just 7% of releases have involved Americans held for more than four years, a population that now represents a plurality of all currently detained U.S. nationals, or some 44%.
"These detentions are often grueling," the study notes, characterized by "torture, poor conditions, and abuse." In some cases, U.S. nationals have either died in captivity or were executed by their captors.
If there is a rare sign of progress in the study, it is that fewer Americans have been taken hostage by terrorist groups like ISIS or other known militant groups in recent years. Between 2012 and 2022, an average of seven U.S. nationals were taken hostage each year by a non-state actor, compared with 12 per year in the previous decade, the study says.
The authors point to two possible explanations: the pandemic, which sharply curtailed international travel starting in 2020, and a decrease in the amount of territory controlled by terrorist organizations in the Middle East and Africa. While encouraging, "neither of these trends is likely durable," the authors caution.
Critics say the White House needs to do more
Taken altogether, the Foley Foundation says there are now at least 65 Americans who are either being held hostage by a non-state actor or wrongfully detained by a foreign government. In its report, the foundation says the U.S. government's prioritization of these cases "remains a challenge," adding that "the U.S. government's plans to recover Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained continue to be opaque for some families."
In recent months, the Biden administration has sought to address the issue on several fronts.
In April, the White House announced a prisoner swap with Russia for the jailed U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed, and just last week it helped secure the release of Matt Frerichs, an American contractor who was held hostage in Afghanistan for more than two years. The president has also met with the Griner family about her detention in Russia. And in August he issued an executive order that, among other things, authorizes the use of financial sanctions and visa bans as a tool to secure the release of detained Americans.
But Foley says more still needs to be done. She wants to see tougher deterrence — like retaliatory sanctions and reparations for victims — and a whole-of-government review of the enterprise that's in place for resolving hostage cases and wrongful detentions. She's also calling on more involvement from the White House, saying "it's become more obvious that the enterprise itself, the way it's structured, cannot independently make the decisions that need to be made to bring people home."
"I just want it to be prioritized enough so that the best heads in our government can look at those issues and figure out how we can deter it from happening and how we can bring people home."