U.S.-style 'fusion cells' among recommendations for improving Canadian policy on hostages

The government is facing calls to review its approach to supporting families of Canadians kidnapped abroad and address alleged shortcomings in the wake of the deaths of John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, who were abducted in the Philippines in 2015 and killed earlier this year.

No effort afoot to improve how Canada handles hostage takings despite criticism of recent cases, says expert

Canadians Robert Hall, left, seen in a video uploaded to YouTube, and John Ridsdel were executed in the Philippines by the militant group Abu Sayyaf earlier this year. The Canadian government has drawn criticism for how it handled their abduction. (Site Intelligence Group/YouTube)

This is the second of a two-part feature on the kidnappings of Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall. Yesterday's piece looked at the story behind the abductions and the struggle of the victims' families. Today's story focuses on what the federal government can do to improve its hostage policy. 

The government is facing calls to review its approach to supporting families of Canadians kidnapped abroad and address alleged shortcomings in its response to the cases of two men abducted in the Philippines in 2015.

Among the recommendations is establishing a U.S.-style "fusion cell" that would improve co-ordination between government departments in the hopes of resolving hostage situations.

"Every Western country is moving towards a fusion cell approach," says Lee Humphrey, a former Canadian soldier who now works as an international security consultant.

He believes Canada hasn't done enough to adapt to an increase in international kidnappings.

Canada does not seem to get it, and perhaps it's because there's been no political blowback.- Lee Humphrey, security consultant

"Canada does not seem to get it, and perhaps it's because there's been no political blowback, but there is no emphasis on fixing [our approach to kidnappings], despite the numerous cases during the last few years of very public hostage takings of Canadians internationally."

'Every Western country is moving towards a fusion cell approach,' says security consultant Lee Humphrey, second from left, a former Canadian soldier. The cells are specialized units staffed by people with expertise in kidnapping from various government departments. (Courtesy Lee Humphrey)

Humphrey says Canadian families have complained for years that the government lacks a cohesive strategy to support and communicate with relatives of kidnapped Canadians.

Robert Hall's sister, Bonice Thomas, says the government must learn from their mistakes in this case, "and find the information and expertise they need to create a team that is dedicated to that and can support not only the family, but perhaps a better outcome for a hostage."

Humphrey says the need for a better strategy is especially urgent given the possibility of Canadian peacekeepers being imminently dispatched to North Africa.

No-ransom policy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has firmly stated that Canada will not negotiate with terror groups and has led a push amongst G7 leaders to "unequivocally reject the payment of ransoms to terrorists."

That policy has complicated negotiations in some recent hostage situations. The families of John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, who were held for ransom and killed earlier this year by the Filipino militant group Abu Sayyaf, say they fell through the cracks between a multi-million-dollar ransom demand and Canada's no-ransom policy.

While Humphrey agrees with that policy, he says the government has a role to play in helping families acquire the best expertise possible as they negotiate for a loved one's release.

Hall, right, and Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad are seen in this undated picture released by Abu Sayyaf to local media in 2016. (Reuters)

Not paying ransoms does not mean "the RCMP or a dedicated response team from the government cannot participate or help the families through the process [of paying a ransom], knowing that at the end of the day the money is not going to come from the government's coffers."

It is not unusual for family members to focus their emotions towards authorities in an effort to understand what is happening to them.- Sgt. Harold Pfleiderer, RCMP spokesman

The RCMP says it has an established program that assigns and trains officers to serve as liaisons with the families of Canadians kidnapped abroad.

"It is not unusual for family members to focus their emotions towards authorities in an effort to understand what is happening to them," said Sgt. Harold Pfleiderer, a spokesman for the RCMP, in a written statement provided to the CBC.

"This is particularly so in cases with adverse outcomes, and the RCMP recognizes and accepts this."

The U.S. model

The frustrations voiced by the Ridsdel and Hall families echo those of families of Americans kidnapped abroad, says Joseph Niland, a retired FBI investigator with an expertise in hostage-takings. 

"That confusion, inconsistency of information and lack of communication is exactly what American families were dealing with and expressed great concern about," says Niland.

U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a comprehensive assessment of his country's hostage policies after an outcry from families who claimed the government failed to do enough to save the lives of their loved ones.

Those families included the parents of James Foley, the first American executed by Islamic State militants in 2014.

The U.S. review resulted in a presidential directive and executive order.

The government is reportedly interviewing the relatives of Ridsdel, pictured above on his sailboat, and Hall as part of a review of how their case was handled. (Courtesy Ridsdel family)

Announced in June 2015, it ensures that families would no longer be threatened with criminal prosecution if they attempted to pay ransoms to terrorist groups.

The presidential directive also ordered the creation of a Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which is a specialized unit staffed by people from the departments of defence, state, justice and treasury, the FBI and the intelligence community with expertise in kidnapping.

A fusion cell is meant to literally bring experts from each department together in the same room.

Led by the FBI, the cell aims to better share information and improve how the government develops hostage recovery plans.

Hall and Ridsdel were taken from the Holiday Ocean View Samal Resort to the Jolo area of the Sulu Islands in the Philippines. (CBC)

Part of its modus operandi is appointing a single point person to communicate with families. This eliminates the chance of different departments feeding contradictory information, which is one of the complaints of victims' families in both the U.S. and Canada.

Humphrey says Canada should strongly consider establishing a similar model. He says a Canadian fusion cell should be led by the RCMP and would bring together experts from the departments of National Defence, Global Affairs, Justice and CSIS to form a single, specialized hostage recovery team that would speak with one voice.

A 'listening exercise'

A senior government source told CBC News the government is currently completing an analysis of the Hall and Ridsdel cases, which includes interviewing family members.

Maintaining communication with the families is important, says former federal Liberal Party leader Bob Rae, who was a friend of Ridsdel.

"It's a very simple thing, it seems to me, for governments to say, 'Your loved one died, we feel we did everything we could, but how do you feel?'" said Rae.

As an MP, Rae had extensive involvement in helping the families of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay after they were kidnapped in Mali in 2008 by members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Ridsdel's family asked Rae for help in trying to secure his release earlier this year. Rae says it's vital that the government incorporates the families' feedback into a review of kidnapping policy.

"I think government has to go through that listening exercise," says Rae. "They have to go through it, and then they have to say, 'How are we going to make it better?'"


Lisa Laventure

Parliamentary Bureau

Lisa Laventure is a field producer in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau, with a focus on immigration, foreign affairs and national security.