The Risks of Taking Dealmaking Off the Table

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Financial Negotiations

On December 7, the news broke that Pierre Korkie, a South African who had been held hostage in Yemen by Al Qaeda, was killed by his guards just hours before his scheduled release due to a botched U.S. attempt to free another hostage. The tragedy suggests the dangers not only of refusing to engage in dealmaking with unsavory potential negotiating partners, but of failing to communicate adequately with those affected by such decisions.

Korkie and his wife, Yolande, were seized in May 2013 in Yemen, where they had lived for four years with their two children, he working as a teacher and she as a relief worker. South Africa, which like the United States has a policy against negotiating with or paying ransom to terrorist groups, refused to negotiate directly with Al Qaeda for the Korkies’ release, for fear of motivating future hostage taking. Indeed, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other rogue groups in the Middle East have turned kidnapping for ransom into a lucrative business, at least in part due to the high ransoms that some European countries have been willing to pay for the release of their citizens.

In January 2014, the South African charity Gift of the Givers worked successfully to secure Yolande Korkie’s release, reportedly without requiring a ransom, writes Rukmini Callimachi in the New York Times. But Al Qaeda demanded a $3 million ransom for Pierre Korkie, an amount the family was unable to raise.

In August, Yemeni tribal leaders representing Gift of the Givers traveled to the desert to negotiate with Al Qaeda fighters. By October, Al Qaeda lowered its ransom to $700,000. The tribal leaders serving as mediators were killed in a drone strike on their way to the next scheduled meeting. Korkie’s abductors ultimately lowered their ransom to $200,000 and promised to give some of the funds to the families of the dead tribal negotiators.

Working with Gift of the Givers, Yolande Korkie raised the money, which was delivered to Yemen. The charity arranged for a convoy of cars to travel from Aden, Yemen, on December 6 to pick up Korkie in the desert and then transport him to a safe country before his return to South Africa. At the insistence of Al Qaeda, both Yemeni and U.S. officials were kept in the dark about the planned release. (The South African government may have known about the plan.)

The night before the scheduled pick-up, Imtiaz Sooliman, Gift of the Givers’ director and the coordinator of the effort to save Korkie, learned that Al Qaeda had given the U.S. government three days to meet its ransom demands for Luke Somers, an American photojournalist who was a cellmate of Korkie’s. “I knew the Americans wouldn’t allow them to execute him,” Sooliman later told the Guardian, adding that he had had a “bad feeling something would happen.”

Indeed, with the deadline looming and the United States standing by its vow not to negotiate with terrorists, U.S. president Barack Obama authorized a military operation aimed at saving Somers—coincidentally, scheduled for the same day as Korkie’s planned release.

The U.S. operation began with Navy SEAL commandos descending in rural Yemen in tilt-rotor planes. As they reached the compound where the hostages were being held, gunfire erupted, the Times reports. Korkie and Somers were killed by their guards; eight other civilians also died in the raid. A couple of hours after her husband’s scheduled release, Yolande Korkie learned that he was dead.

“When the U.S. unilaterally takes all the other options off the table and leaves itself with only the military option, then if that goes wrong, the results can be tragic,” Gregory D. Johnson, an expert on Al Qaeda who was nearly kidnapped himself by the group, told the Times following the raid.

Moreover, a failure to negotiate with terrorists often results in a failure to negotiate effectively with the families of hostages. After the killing of American journalist James Foley by the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on August 19, 2014, for example, members of Foley’s family revealed to the media that they had found themselves virtually alone in trying to secure his release. Such criticisms reportedly led President Obama to order a thorough review of U.S. efforts to secure the release of American hostages held abroad.

There are many reasons we might refuse to negotiate with an individual or group we judge to be immoral, untrustworthy, or otherwise undesirable as a negotiating partner, writes Program on Negotiation chair Robert Mnookin in his book Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight (Simon & Schuster, 2011). Deciding not to engage is an easier choice when we would be negotiating strictly on our own behalf. By contrast, when others would be impacted, we have a deep obligation to ensure that we are approaching our decisions with compassion and sound logic.


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