Don’t Take Them!

Recently, there have been constant reports about frequent hostage crises in the Middle East. These kidnappings have increased each year and spread to places where footholds of (typically) terrorist groups reside. It is not unheard of for hostages to be sold or traded to other groups in return for other individuals, goods, or territory. The more recent story I have heard was about James Foley’s capture and beheading by the Islamic State of Iraw and the Levant (ISIL or sometimes, ISIS), but there are many more groups and stories in and out of Westernized societies that have yet to be uncovered.


French Troops in Iraq (From: Mashable)

Hostages “are a commodity,” says Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical analysis of Stratfor, a global intelligence firm in Austin, TX. It’s effective because it creates the suspense necessary for a gripping news story and to hold people’s attention. Whether we like it or not, we are (myself included) drawn to dramatic situations and uncertainty keeps us hooked. I am constantly hoping that everything will “turn out okay” each time I hear of a new story with hostages, but more often than not, they end in killings or other negative consequences.

In countries where kidnapping is common, militant groups work with tribes and criminals who snatch hostages off the street. The price the kidnappers get is significantly less than the millions the hostages will ultimately be worth, but the bandits make more money than they would in other criminal enterprises. However, since the United States (and similarly, Great Britain) is not among those countries that will pay ransoms, there is a higher risk for hostages to be executed and used in political and military statements and methods of persuasion.


From: The Economist

There have been countless ransoms paid to these groups. An investigation earlier this year by the Times revealed that al-Qaeda and affiliated groups had earned at least $125 million from kidnappings since 2008. This is viewed as a rapidly growing business tactic as well as a political one. For example, the Islamic State militants have made “millions and millions” of dollars in ransoms for locals as well as foreigners, according to Danielle Pletka, a former staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

However, when the ransoms are not paid, or the group deems necessary, these hostages have been killed, put in slavery, or forced into other terrifying situations. Lynsey Addario, a New York Times photographer, shared a story of being kidnapped during the Libyan conflict in 2011: “Being blindfolded and bound is something you can’t really conceive until it happens…It was incredibly intense and violent…both psychologically and physically.”

My initial reaction to these types of stories is that it isn’t truly about the people these groups are kidnapping, even though they do choose people that they think are of high importance. From what I gather, terrorist groups have used more recent kidnappings for 2 main things: 1) to publicize the group’s ideology, beliefs, and goals and 2) to show that they “will be listened and paid attention to”. For example, when President Barack Obama responded to the murder video of James Foley, he showed that he acknowledged that ISIL had power and his attention. This makes them, in a way, “worthy” of their media presence because they have an audience that pays attention to them. Remember when your parents said “if someone bullies you, just ignore them”? It might’ve been best to do that in this case as well, as some reporters are arguing. It is no different in Arab media – terrorists crave an audience and it has been given to them countless times.

When dealing with these hostage situations, it is tricky navigation – as we all know. I am still baffled by the complexity of the operations and how negotiations are handled. In my opinion, though, one key to beating these kidnappings is to make them unprofitable. That is not to say that there shouldn’t be efforts to get them back, I am not saying that in any capacity, but there should be alternative methods to paying a random or trading resources. History is remarkably consistent – the neglect and appeasement of terror both fail, but what is left? Do you all agree with how hostage situations have been handled in the past? What can we do to change the current methods used? Left alone, terrorism will only continue to grow, and with that, the hostage crisis.

                                References: The White House, Middle East Forum, The Economist, USA Today, Mashable, AlJazeera, UN News Centre

Update on Nov. 19, 2014: U.S. Agencies Review Policy on Hostages


Public Health – What’s Everyone Talking About?

In America, health care and health policies are becoming more and more of a debated issue. What is the right way to handle the issue? What stance should be taken? Well, for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions, they are gearing up for the same topic. I was intrigued on what was being focused on in their recent health discussions, but there are still areas that need to be covered and given the attention that they deserve. This post will be covered Non-Communicable Diseases, Mental Health (Disabilities), and Refugee Healthcare discussions.


Non-Communicable Diseases

As I understand, non-communicable diseases are illnesses that cannot be transmitted – the only develop from genetics or mutations. In MENA regions, diseases such as heart disease (44%), stroke (35%), and diabetes (87%) are causing more premature death and disability than they have in past years. This is hypothesized to be because of poor diets, high body mass indexes, and large amounts of smoking in the region. The rates of these types of diseases are increasing as time goes on because the environmental factors cannot be overcome.

The leading causes of disease were diverse and, sometimes, surprising. Between preterm birth complications in Algeria and Palestine, depression in Jordan, and coronary heart disease in Egypt, Iran, and Lebanon, there are obviously a multitude of areas that need attention but do not respond to the same treatments. Unless effective preventive measures are implemented effectively and quickly, the illnesses could have significant social and economic consequences, especially in areas where transmittable diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, are there already.

Mental Health

Accounting for 13% of the total global burden of disease, untreated mental health disorders are one of the leading causes of disability, causing lasting disruptions in mood, thinking and daily functioning. As outlined in Access to Mental Health Care in the Middle East, mental health is not a strong priority in the MENA region and services are not widespread despite the increasing efforts made. The decreased prioritization around mental health issues means that government implementation of the available resources (if there are any) in each area are not concentrated on this issue just yet.

There are different options to handling mental illness cases, especially since they differ individually, but it has been reported that Arabs endorsed greater beliefs in supernatural causes of mental illness. This comes from Islamic beliefs in “a dangerous, unprovoked spirit”, “a spirit that was angry because someone did wrong” and “evil eyes”. It has also been established that Arabs generally hold stigmatizing beliefs towards seeking professional mental health services, both within the MENA region and in the United States.

Figure 1While there are many similarities within the Arab nations and cultures about mental health, cultural and religious variations are predicted to be the keys to the success or failure of attitude and treatment towards the problem.

Refugee Healthcare

As taken from Global Health Middle East, “[Syria and neighboring countries] are struggling to cope with the staggering number of refugees, who have strained health, education and other infrastructure. As more refugees stream over the border every day, the UN is being forced to prioritize the most vulnerable due to lack of funds.” Attention needs to be paid to the healthcare needs of refugees both in terms of war/trauma injuries and emergency care, but also to the long-term healthcare polices for those with chronic diseases and mental health issues, as seen by the tweets below. There is an express interest in aiding refugees in the most efficient ways possible, but it seems like no one truly knows how. There are many organizations that have focused on emergency response, but that only goes so far.


The rapid shifts in disease burden place poor people in low – and middle – income countries at high risk of not having access to appropriate services and incurring payments for health care that push them deeper into poverty,said Timothy Evans, Director of Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank Group. The question is, with an ongoing war and a need for humanitarian aid, where will the long-term funding for refugee health come from? What possibilities are there for regional areas to contribute aid?

Currently, most health services in the MENA regions are based on a curative model, which is expensive to maintain and ineffective in addressing the emerging health challenges. With the rapid growth of health discussions, it is clear that there are efforts to change how the issues are handled, but who is going to answer and solve these problems? Who will be accountable for delivering services to those who need them?

References: Providing Healthcare in Crisis, Social Barriers to Mental Health Services, The Middle East and Health, Public Health in the Middle East, The World Bank