The Biden administration found itself navigating yet another complex effort to free Americans abroad this week — this time as the result of a surprise and unprecedented attack by Hamas against Israel over the weekend in which more than two dozen U.S. citizens were also killed.
President Biden and his top deputies have made clear that freeing American hostages are a first priority, but they are also faced with working with scant details about how many hostages there are, where they are and whether they are still alive.
The situation is made more difficult by the ongoing fighting and the practical realities of trying to find and get hostages out of Gaza, a Palestinian enclave that is under heavy bombardment by Israel in retaliation for attacks that killed more than a thousand Israelis.
Add to that what some officials Thursday called a typical “playbook” of moving hostages around, to contribute to making them harder to locate and identify. There’s also the matter of negotiations — the U.S. has designated Hamas a terrorist organization and therefore has no direct relations.
That’s left the White House employing assets from around the region. It has framed that effort as “casting a wide net,” which involves deploying U.S. experts on the matter to assist and working with nations such as Qatar that have lines of communication open with Hamas. Qatar has served in other situations as mediator between the U.S. and Middle East nations seeking thorny diplomatic deals.
One thing the U.S. has ruled out is putting American troops on the ground in Gaza, instead largely relying on diplomats, hostage negotiators, experts and Israeli forces.
Biden, who confirmed to the nation that Americans were among more than 100 hostages taken Saturday, offered few details about the work being done, suggesting doing so would undercut those efforts.
“Folks, there’s a lot we’re doing. A lot we’re doing,” Biden said in remarks to Jewish leaders. “I have not given up hope on bringing these folks home. But the idea that I’m going to stand here before you and tell you what I’m doing is bizarre.”
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said this week that the number of Americans believed to be held as hostages is “very small,” underscoring that 14 Americans are unaccounted for. As of Thursday, 27 Americans were confirmed dead.
U.S. officials, though, have largely stopped there in terms of giving details about the whereabouts or condition of those Americans believed to be hostages, in part to not jeopardize any operations.
“These are very delicate circumstances, and I think you’re going to see a commitment to continuing to keeping the American public updated on the facts as we understand them, but certainly not a play-by-play on how recovery operations are going in real time,” said Emily Horne, former spokesperson for the National Security Council under the Biden administration.
Jon Finer, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, told MSNBC on Thursday that one of the biggest challenges will be determining where the hostages are being held, before tackling other obstacles.
“There is an intelligence challenge of, how do you actually find these people, and then once you do find them, if you do find them, how do you actually locate them, either negotiate their release or try operationally to remove them,” Finer said.
Kirby told reporters during the daily briefing later in the day that it was typical for Hamas to move hostages around to make them more difficult to find, as part of what he called the group’s “playbook.”
“It is a common tactic in the Hamas playbook to break up hostages and move them around in sometimes small groups. So we have nothing that would indicate to us that they would follow a different set of protocols, but I can’t … prove to you that that is exactly what’s happening,” he said.
That sentiment was reiterated by Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, who warned in a CNN interview that Hamas will likely spread out hostages.
“This is going to be a brutal situation. Hamas is not stupid,” Himes said. “They will not have concentrated hostages. They will spread them out; they will probably be underground in ways that are very hard to identify them.”
The Biden administration has dealt with high-profile hostages in its first term before, one of the most notable being the secured release of basketball star Brittney Griner, who was held in Russia amid its war with Ukraine and released in a prison swap with convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Another five Americans were recently released as part of a prisoner swap with Iran, which in return was promised the release of $6 billion in unfrozen funds that were transferred from South Korea to Qatar to be accessed for humanitarian purposes.
That deal, though, has now come under fresh scrutiny. Though the administration maintains that money has not been spent, and that it has not yet determined Iran had direct involvement with the attack in Israel, Tehran has long been known to back, fund and train Hamas fighters.
With its prior experience, Biden allies say the administration stands ready to embark on the challenges in Israel.
“Unfortunately, tragically, there is a bit of a playbook on how to work with a wide range of actors in order to bring home Americans who have been taken hostage or detained unjustly overseas,” Horne said. “This is an administration that has proven that it has an ability to bring home our people including by working with … partners in the region, as is appropriate.”
But experts point to the difference when dealing with a group like Hamas.
Dani Gilbert, an expert in hostage-taking at Northwestern University, said that kidnappings by nonstate actors like Hamas can be harder in some ways, but offer more options, such as “the use of force.”
“In the case of Hamas, it is challenging when there’s not a clear leadership structure and not a clear sense of who you might be talking to or who you might be negotiating with,” she said.
“Special forces hostage recovery missions are extraordinarily difficult; they are incredibly dangerous. They represent the time in a hostage taking when the hostage is most likely to die. But it is an option that’s really not even in discussion when we’re talking about dealing with a government like Russia or Iran,” she added.
Robert O’Brien, who served as the Trump administration’s top hostage negotiator before becoming national security adviser, called for the Biden administration to put forward its “elite hostage rescue elements.”
“This isn’t just a Hamas-Israel issue now,” O’Brien said at a Nixon Seminar event Wednesday. “It’s a Hamas/Iran-American issue now. So we need to get our diplomats forward.”