Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell Marks Third Anniversary
Unified Government Approach Key to Bringing Loved Ones Home to Their Families
This week marks the third anniversary of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a multi-agency team based at FBI Headquarters that represents the government’s unified approach to recovering American hostages abroad—and its commitment to support the families whose loved ones are being held captive.
Since the White House established the fusion cell on June 24, 2015—along with positions including a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and a family engagement coordinator—the U.S. government has sought to “speak with one voice” regarding hostage matters, said FBI Special Agent Robert Saale, director of the fusion cell. “That effort has been extremely beneficial.”
In the past three years, more than 180 American citizens—kidnapped for ransom by criminal groups or held by foreign terrorist organizations—have been recovered. And family members, who often endure months and sometimes years of anguish and uncertainty regarding the fate of a loved one held captive, are now a central focus of the fusion cell.
“Not a week goes by without the kidnapping of an American citizen abroad,” Saale said. Most are carried out for ransom by criminal groups and are quickly resolved. But terrorist groups holding U.S. citizens can take years to resolve, and efforts to recover individuals who have been held captive for long periods continue around the clock.
The fusion cell consists of nearly 50 individuals from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of State, and other agencies whose full-time job and single focus is bringing hostages home safely and sharing information with their families. A critical part of that effort is the Family Engagement Team, established at the same time as 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, who leads the FBI’s Victim Services Division and who was a member of the White House policy review team that advocated for new procedures.
“Families often had to navigate the process on their own and were dissatisfied with the amount of information that was shared by officials,” she said. “Sometimes they were only able to get information from third parties and not from their own government.”
“Today, we have transparent relationships with families in terms of sharing information and intelligence and engaging in a back-and-forth dialogue,” Saale said. “There has been a 180-degree change in how the families are treated, and we are seeing very positive feedback.”
“At the end of the day,” Turman added, “the families have to live with the consequences of our actions. 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 fusion cell consists of nearly 50 individuals from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of State, and other agencies whose full-time job and single focus is bringing hostages home safely and sharing information with their families.
As the fusion cell evolves, it is expanding its efforts to be more proactive in hostage prevention. That includes doing outreach to groups that often travel overseas to dangerous regions, such as faith-based institutions, non-governmental organizations, and journalists. “We talk to them about how to avoid being taken hostage, areas to avoid, and, if something does happen, who to contact,” Saale said.
Another proactive effort is identifying and disrupting captor networks. Some terrorist groups “derive 100 percent of their revenue through ransom payments,” Saale explained. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to go after these terrorists and deny them a source of funding.”
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.”