The FBI marked in June the third anniversary of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a multi-agency team that delivers a holistic government approach to recovering American hostages abroad.
The fusion cell was established by the White House on June 24, 2015, along with positions including special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and family engagement coordinator. FBI Special Agent Robert Saale, director of the fusion cell, said the U.S. government has pushed to “speak with one voice” regarding hostage matters.
“That effort has been extremely beneficial,” Saale said in a statement.
More than 180 American citizens have been recovered from captivity in the past three years. These citizens were kidnapped for ransom by criminal groups, held by regimes or held by foreign terrorist organizations.
According to Saale, an American citizen is kidnapped every week; most are carried out by criminal groups, but quickly resolved.
However, terrorist groups can hold citizens for years, and efforts to bring them home continue around the clock.
There are 50 individuals in the fusion cell from the FBI, Department of Defense, State Department and other agencies. These individuals focus on safely bringing home hostages and communicating with their families.
The Family Engagement Team is a critical component of the fusion cell.
“What we heard from families prior to 2015 was that the government’s response seemed uncoordinated and family support was inconsistent,” said Kathryn Turman, the FBI’s Victim Services Division lead and member of the White House policy review team that advocated for new procedures.
Turman said families usually have to navigate the situation on their own, experiencing frustration with official communication and getting information from third parties rather than their own government.
Saale said today the government has a transparent relationship with families regarding sharing information and intelligence.
“At the end of the day the families have to live with the consequences of our actions,” Turman said. “So we need to give them a front-row seat to what the U.S. government is doing to bring their loved one home. It’s really important for them to know that they have been part of the process and to see that there are people who come to work every day with the exclusive mission to get their loved one back.”
The center is evolving and expanding efforts to be more proactive in hostage prevention, which includes outreach to faith-based institutions, non-governmental organizations, journalists and any group that travels overseas to “dangerous regions.”
Another effort is identifying and disrupting captor networks. According to Saale, some terrorist groups “derive 100 percent of their revenue through ransom payments.” He suggests countries go after terrorists and deny them funding sources.
When the fusion cell began operations three years ago, officials talked about a “whole-of-government approach,” Saale said. “Now we are even more inclusive. We are willing to talk and work with anyone, as long as it is ethical and legal, to help get our folks home. Today we talk about a whole-of-society approach.”