Making the Hunters the Hunted: Exploring Hostage-Rescue

01/31/2011 02:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 2004, Dan O'Shea, a Navy SEAL officer and commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves, served as Coordinator of the Hostage Working Group (HWG) in Baghdad.

Formed at the height of the Iraqi insurgency when a hostage campaign targeting foreigners averaged more than 40 kidnappings per month, the HWG oversaw a period during which kidnappings of foreigners in Iraq declined to one per month in April, 2006. At present, kidnappings of foreigners in Iraq remain in the single digits and the HWG no longer exists as a crisis management agency because the hostage crisis in Iraq has diminished so dramatically.

O'Shea is a consulting producer of "Kidnap & Rescue" on the Discovery Channel, a series on the "global kidnapping crisis" that premiered Saturday night. The series will cover the efforts of O'Shea and others to combat political kidnappings in global hot spots and also cover areas like the kidnapping of businesspeople for ransom, kidnapping for money or revenge by drug cartels, and the kidnapping of women and children by promulgators of child pornography and sex slavery. Saturday's episode focused on Mexican drug cartels; episode five will feature O'Shea.

O'Shea spoke with me about his work with HWG, an inter-agency task force that gathered intelligence to enable decision-makers in Iraq to launch either diplomatic or military hostage-rescue efforts. He says the HWG worked on 400 kidnappings in Iraq and were able to rescue five live individuals, just one of whom was American. Other hostages, however, were likely released as a result of aggressive tactics of the HWG and U.S. Special Forces, O'Shea explained.

By identifying kidnapping rings, arresting their members, and educating U.S. service members and others about ways to minimize the odds of capture, the HWG slowly chipped away at kidnappers' effectiveness and contributed to the decline of the phenomenon in Iraq, O'Shea believes.

"With five rescues in a two-year period, there were not a lot of days where you felt like you were making a difference," O'Shea said. But the drastic reduction in numbers of service members and civilians abducted during O'Shea's tenure speaks to the effectiveness of the HWG in making sure the kidnapping crisis in Iraq did not proliferate. That, according to O'Shea, is central to many counter-kidnapping efforts.

"The kidnapping industry is run like a business, similar to the mafia," O'Shea explained. "There is hierarchy, violence, and structure. Kidnappers need to understand that what they are doing will not be tolerated, and what hostage-takers want - be it a ransom payment or message of terror will not go unchallenged."

O'Shea helped to uncover the largest kidnapping ring in Baghdad for targeting foreigners during the years he led HWG. That investigative work led to special forces' targeting of the ring, which provided a powerful deterrent to its members. O'Shea attributes the sharp decline in hostage takings in Baghdad from '04 to '06 to that deterrent.

Thanks to U.S. Special Operation Forces the "kidnapping rings in Iraq would wake up and find another member of their cell had been apprehended," he said. "We went on the offensive."

Key to effectively countering kidnappers is understanding their motives, according to O'Shea. He breaks them down into four categories: terrorists, who want to "send a message;" criminals who are "out for money;" psychotics who may have no intelligible motive; and "sadists who get satisfaction and pleasure" from inflicting pain and controlling others.

Knowing the motivations of a particular kidnapper or ring is important in forming the strategy for rescue.

"Whoever has grabbed a hostage, if you know what their intent is - whether they use violence for violence's sake, or if they are in it for a paycheck - it helps the mission planning. If you know the mental state and intent of the hostage takers you are more likely to execute a successful hostage rescue operation," according to O'Shea.

It can be complicated, however, because often kidnappers have a combination of motivations and characteristics.

"For instance, some terror groups are driven by ideology but also recognize they can get millions," from abductions, O'Shea said.

Other essential information for special forces or law enforcement when attempting rescue is "proof of life," or proof the hostage is alive; as well the exact location the hostage is being held; and the "approval and authority" to engage in a rescue operation.

One of the cases O'Shea was involved in was that of Jill Carroll, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who was abducted in 2006. The Baghdad network that O'Shea had fingered - and which U.S. Special Forces subsequently targeted - ultimately wound up releasing Carroll.

That was the day his tour was to end, O'Shea recalls.

"On the last day of my two-year tour we got a call that Jill Carroll was released," O'Shea recalled. "When she stepped out of the car and into the arms of her best friend... I watched those two hug. I felt like it was God saying, 'Daniel, you didn't waste your time in the Lion's Den. Your mission is done. You can go home now.'"