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The Saturday Profile: A British Import: Help for Families of Hostages Seized Abroad

For more than seven months Ms. Briggs kept the news to herself, while secret negotiations to free her uncle were held between the abductors and representatives of the Danish company. He was eventually released after a ransom, for an undisclosed amount, had been paid.

“I didn’t really confide in anybody,” Ms. Briggs said. “That was my way of coping.”

In the more than two decades since, Ms. Briggs, 40, has become an expert in counseling others attempting to cope with the crisis of a relative abducted overseas.

She also is an expert on the motives of foreign hostage takers and an advocate of improved government liaison with the traumatized families of hostages, connections that for many years hardly existed.

Ms. Briggs helped found Hostage UK, a nonprofit charitable organization in Britain for families of Britons held captive by the Islamic State and other extremist groups and criminal gangs. It offers a range of free support services for both families and released hostages, from psychological counseling to assistance in dealing with debt collectors pressing for payments of delinquent bills.

Last year Ms. Briggs, who was awarded the rank of Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2014 for her work with hostage families, branched out to establish an American chapter, Hostage US, based in Washington.

While there are no official figures on the number of Americans abducted overseas, Ms. Briggs said it’s roughly 200 a year. “This is still an unknown crime,” she said.

Her organization does not conduct hostage negotiations, Ms. Briggs said, seeing that as the purview of law enforcement and security officials. But it can prepare a hostage’s family for what to expect and the questions that should be asked.

Ms. Briggs played an indirect role in easing a strict United States government ban on contact with kidnappers, a change made a few years ago by President Barack Obama after the Islamic State had beheaded American captives.

Acknowledging that his administration had failed the families of those captives, Mr. Obama said that going forward, the United States government could under some circumstances negotiate with hostage takers. While he did not relax a ban on paying ransoms, he also said communication would be permissible between hostage takers and “the families of hostages or third parties who help these families.”

Mr. Obama also said families should not be threatened with criminal charges if they sought to pay ransoms, as happened to the parents of James W. Foley, an American journalist who was the first of the American captives held by the Islamic State to be beheaded.

Diane Foley, Mr. Foley’s mother and a critic of how the Obama administration had handled his case, said her advocacy for hostage families had been partly inspired by the work of Ms. Briggs. They became acquainted when the Foleys sought help from Hostage UK, and grew closer after Mr. Foley had been killed.

Ms. Briggs visited the Foleys in their New Hampshire home. “I was so touched not only by her compassion but that she’s spent her whole career doing that work,” Mrs. Foley said. “There was nobody doing that in the United States.”


Diane and John Foley at a Mass for their son, the journalist James W. Foley, in Rochester, N.H., in 2014. Credit Cheryl Senter for The New York Times

A charitable foundation started by the Foleys, along with support from the Ford Foundation, helped Ms. Briggs establish Hostage US, which she runs with a few assistants and a staff of trained volunteers.

Ms. Briggs said Hostage US had handled approximately 30 cases and was “gearing up” for a capacity of 100 cases per year. She declined to identify any, under the organization’s pledge of confidentiality to families, but said they included “both political and terrorist cases, and kidnap-for-ransom criminal cases.”

The United States government now provides information about Hostage US in packets that go to families of hostages, Ms. Briggs said. “We’re the only organization that just does this,” she said.

A common denominator among relatives of hostages, Ms. Briggs said, is their initial reaction to the news.

“They spend the first period not quite believing this has happened and hoping this is going to be over quickly,” she said, “and not thinking about themselves and the support they need.”

This was not the life Ms. Briggs had envisioned at Cambridge, where she originally majored in geography. After her uncle’s ordeal, Ms. Briggs said, she wanted instead to learn everything about Colombia’s scourge of abductions. For her thesis topic, she said, “I wanted to do international kidnapping.”

In explaining the change to her academic advisers, Ms. Briggs told them for the first time of her family’s personal trauma, and described their reaction as “pretty stunned.”

Convincing them she could be objective, Ms. Briggs plunged into research. She traveled to the United States, where she interviewed Thomas R. Hargrove, a journalist from Galveston, Tex., who had been held captive for 11 months by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and had written a book, “Long March to Freedom,” about his ordeal.

Ms. Briggs spent four days with Mr. Hargrove’s family and watched what she called “an insane amount of home video” shot by his son, Miles, that had captured the tensions during the negotiations for Mr. Hargrove’s release, which his family had conducted without help.

“I remember sitting there, thinking, ‘Wow, how my life has changed,’” Ms. Briggs said.

Miles Hargrove, now a professional filmmaker, said he had talked with Ms. Briggs a number of times since the death of his father in 2011, and that “what she’s doing is very important as far as I’m concerned.”

After Ms. Briggs graduated from Cambridge, she interned at the Foreign Policy Center, a London-based research organization. She persuaded Mark Leonard, a geopolitical analyst and writer who was the organization’s 24-year-old director at the time, to support a detailed project on overseas abductions. She helped raise about $ 50,000 to fund it.

“She was very influenced by the kidnapping of her uncle,” Mr. Leonard said. “She had a passion that came from personal experience. But she also looked at it in a more analytical way as well.”

That project became a study, “The Kidnapping Business,” which concluded that Britain and other Western nations had missed an important shift: Kidnappers were increasingly carrying out abductions for financial gain.

The study attracted the interest of Terry Waite, the Anglican Church envoy and famous hostage negotiator — who was a former hostage himself, having been held captive for more than four years by Shiite militants in Lebanon.

Mr. Waite was in the midst of trying to establish Hostage UK when he read Ms. Briggs’s work. “So I approached her and I suggested she might join alongside so we might get Hostage UK off the ground,” he said, describing her as “an exceptional organizer.”

Ms. Briggs said the intensity of counseling hostage families can be exhausting. “You are essentially absorbing other people’s stress, other people’s trauma,” she said. Sometimes her own staff of volunteers may need counseling, she said, and “that is something we will make happen for them.”

As for herself, Ms. Briggs says she relieves the stress by taking long vacations. “I go backpacking around Asia, or take my guitar to Costa Rica, or go scuba diving in Australia,” she said.

The one place she will not go, she said, is Colombia — even though it is now vastly safer — because she knows it would upset her parents. “I just wouldn’t,” she said. “I wouldn’t want for them to think it was ever an option.”

Source: NYT > World

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