Resolving the abduction of Douglas Wood

It really depends on who seized him and who now has him.

The abduction of Douglas Wood delivers a situation that Australian politicians, policymakers and contingency planners have long dreaded.

Wood's abduction follows a hoax claim last September that Islamist terrorists in Iraq had taken two Australians hostage, and the October seizure and subsequent release of the journalist John Martinkus.

Some 200 foreigners and several thousand Iraqis have been abducted since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Of the foreigners around 20 per cent have been killed, often quite brutally, only two have been rescued, three more have escaped, about a third have been released and the rest are still captives or unaccounted for.

Wood’s survival greatly depends on whether he has been seized by criminals, Sunni tribal insurgents or Islamists, with the odds steeply declining respectively. It also depends on the location and circumstances of his abduction.

The omens thus far look bleak although it remains to be seen whether the so-called “Shura (Council) of the Mujahedeen of Iraq” are who or what they claim to be.

If Wood’s abductors are not Islamists some negotiation through clerical or tribal channels might be possible.

The French and Italians have had some success in this regard but even then have usually had to resort to bribes and ransom, a short-term expedience that simply exacerbates longer-term problems.

If his abductors are Islamists negotiations are likely to be impossible or fruitless, and would probably lead to Aussie hostage taking becoming increasingly attractive to the terrorists anyway.

It is easy, of course, to declare a strict policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists (on substantive issues) when the discussion remains theoretical.

It is much harder when Douglas Wood’s videoed pleas, and possibly much worse, bring a hard dose of reality into our lounge rooms.

But even if we were to withdraw our forces from Iraq in exchange for his release this would just increase the likelihood of further hostage taking on other issues in other places.

The fanatical and religiously bigoted nature of Islamist terrorism in particular makes this inevitable.

The "no negotiations" policy was originally firmly based in the rational actor paradigm.

Traditional terrorist groups, especially in siege-hostage incidents, generally seek to maximise their own self-interest (as they see it). They usually want to live rather than die, and want to eventually escape their immediate predicament.

In “traditional siege-hostage” cases the terrorists barter the well-being and lives of their hostages to achieve their own survival and the intermediate or overall political objectives they seek.

The negotiation problem is therefore generally a matter of lowering their expectations logically by a judicious mix of physical containment, time, rapport and resolve.

Such situations are essentially contests of governmental resolve versus terrorist ruthlessness with both spiced by bluff.

Any killing of hostages, especially vulnerable ones, is generally counterproductive as this tends to invite forcible intervention in order to save at least some of the remainder.

The nature of traditional (political) terrorist actions, while still contrary to the laws of war, are also usually based on some shared cultural understandings and accepted prohibitions.

Women and children, for example, are often the first to be released during negotiations.

In the past, traditional terrorist groups such as the IRA or ETA tended to acknowledge that open killing of the innocent and vulnerable reflected badly on their professed cause and on them personally as fighters in that cause.

Hostage taking by Islamist terrorists over the last half decade has introduced several new and brutal complications.

First, hostage taking in Iraq's lawless and amoral Sunni badlands, where Islamist terrorism thrives, does not normally involve a siege — so there are no well-trained security forces to contain the incident and negotiate from a position of relative strength. The prospect of locating and then rescuing hostages is not good.

Second, this relative impunity, exacerbated by religious fanaticism, racism and perverted scriptural rulings from bigoted clergy, condones and encourages not just the taking of hostages and their killing, but also callous and inhumane acts such as torture, beheading and mutilation as acts of terrorist theatre.

No respected Muslim theologian condones such acts because they are contrary to Islam as laid down in the holy Qur'an.

Third, the act of terrorism is often the Islamist’s religious or quasi-political objective in itself — at least for its direct perpetrators.

Negotiations are often not possible because they are not really intended or sought by the terrorists.

Fourth, even where purported terrorist objectives are cited they are often so unrealistic that no meaningful negotiation is possible.

This is compounded by cross-cultural awareness gaps between terrorists and negotiators becoming chasms of mutual incomprehension, ignorance and rage.

Finally, the nature of Islamist terrorism often means the terrorists involved welcome death and, at least ostensibly, cannot be drawn into negotiations to escape or otherwise resolve the situation.

Australia's policy on negotiating with terrorists is no longer theoretical.

Everyone in Australia will be hoping and praying that Douglas Wood’s abductors are not who they claim to be.

They should also hope and pray that Wood is able to convince his captors of the fact he was in Iraq to help with the rebuilding of their country.