Through an empirical focus on hostage taking, my research explores the causes and consequences of political violence. From rebel guerrillas to authoritarian states, hostage takers use human captivity to coerce monetary, diplomatic, and political concessions from state and non-state targets. Hostages suffer significant and symbolic violence with implications for policy, governance, and peace.
This page includes abstracts of my current projects and links to my published scholarship. Links to my policy writing can be found here.
The Logic of Kidnapping in Civil War Based on my PhD dissertation, "The Logic of Coercive Kidnapping," winner of the American Political Science Association's 2021 Merze Tate Award for the Best Dissertation in International Relations, Law, and Politics.
Global kidnapping has spiked dramatically over the last several decades, as armed groups abduct civilians in war. While the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and the FARC ravage communities and confound policymakers, there has been limited scholarly examination of this tool of coercion. By examining when and why armed groups kidnap, my research fills this gap. I ask two related questions: First, why do some armed groups kidnap, whereas others do not? And, does kidnapping "work" for perpetrators? Leveraging evidence from extensive interviews with former combatants from Colombia's civil war, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as military and security personnel, I show that ransom kidnapping is used to enforce groups' protection rackets. It is both the most lucrative way to punish tax evasion, as well as a strategic means of compelling future cooperation. However, kidnapping presents a temporal trade-off for armed groups: While it increases tax compliance in the short term, it presents long-term legitimacy costs to perpetrators. I explore this trade-off through an examination of the ongoing truth and reconciliation process resulting from the 2016 peace agreement between Colombia's government and the FARC. This project provides a novel explanation for a persistent and perplexing type of violence against civilians worldwide.
Why do some armed groups kidnap, whereas others do not? Despite a dramatic spike in kidnappings by political groups over the last several decades, there is no existing explanation for this tool of coercion. Leveraging evidence from extensive interviews with former combatants from Colombia's civil war, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as military and security personnel, I show that ransom kidnapping is used to enforce groups' protection rackets. It is both the most lucrative way to punish tax evasion, as well as a strategic means of compelling future cooperation. Thus, groups that tax local populations are more likely to kidnap; groups with external or voluntary funding are less likely to take hostages. This novel study explains when we should see kidnapping in armed conflict, describing an unexplored way that selective violence bolsters insurgency.
What is hostage diplomacy, and how can U.S. allies respond to this coercive tool of Chinese foreign policy? We conceptualize "hostage diplomacy" -- the taking of hostages under the guise of law for use as foreign policy leverage -- to explain an under examined form of international coercion. Exploring an international crisis over three prisoners -- China's Meng Wanzhou and Canada's Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig -- we illustrate the turn to hostage diplomacy by China and other authoritarian states. Drawing on the principles of negotiation, we analyze the creative negotiation strategies that middle powers might adopt to bring their captive citizens home. In doing so, we show how the fate of these three individuals had implications for policy concerns ranging from Iran's nuclear program, to the adoption of 5G technology, to the future of the liberal international order.
What explains U.S. media coverage of Americans kidnapped abroad? While some hostages receive national media attention, others hardly make the local news. Using an original, event count dataset of newspaper stories about Americans kidnapped abroad since 2001, this article tests the oft-cited, under-measured assumption that "terrorism" receives more media attention than other violence. Controlling for variation across kidnapping, I show that those framed as "terrorism" receive more coverage. Challenging existing literature, I also demonstrate that incidents with more victims receive less coverage than those incidents with fewer victims, and that there is no "missing white woman syndrome" in international kidnapping.
In recent decades, nationalism has emerged from the distant purview of history to become the primary driver of some of the world's biggest news. Given the prominence of nationalist conflict, students in political science increasingly study the subject with modern references in mind. This article describes the design for a timely undergraduate political science course on the causes and consequences of nationalism, with a focus on four central learning objectives: understanding theories and concepts in the study of nations and nationalism; applying theories to contemporary events; exploring issues of identity among a community of learners; and developing analytical and professional skills. I describe in detail two course assignments that exemplify these pedagogical objectives. In the "nationalism in the news" assignment, students given an in-class oral presentation on a current news story, interpreting the event through the lens of course themes. In the "national anthems analysis" paper, students analyze the lyrics of the national anthem of their choosing, linking symbols to interpretations of different nationalism types. I conclude by offering suggestions for adapting these and other course assignments to a range of classrooms and students.
"Terror by Any Other Name," Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2019): 417-420. Online here. "Organized Violence Between War and Peace," Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2017): 377-383. Online here.
Kidnappings of soldiers, journalists, aid workers, and other civilians by armed groups happen every day. Yet, the politics of hostage recovery remains relatively understudied by international relations scholars. Whether and how governments choose to recover their citizens varies widely, as does public sentiment about bringing hostages home. To explain this variation, we develop a theory of hostage deservingness and detail how perceptions of deservingness affect support for a range of recovery options. We argue that deservingness is determined by the circumstances of capture -- particularly whether hostages are perceived to be to blame for their capture. We test the argument using experiments embedded in two large, national surveys of the American public. The results of the experiments demonstrate that public support for hostage recovery depends on the public's perceptions of who's to blame for the hostage's capture. When hostages are described as not to blame for their capture, support for rescue and ransom payment is at its highest. However, when capture occurs under circumstances that suggest the hostage bears responsibility, support for rescue and ransom payment decreases, especially when recovery is costly. These findings suggest that the public is out of step with U.S. government policy, which dictates circumstances of capture should be ignored, and predicts potential backlash for policymakers in recovering less sympathetic hostages.
"Instruction over Incentives: Assessing Reading Strategies for International Security Studies" (with Paul Bezerra and Karin Becker, revise & resubmit, International Studies Perspectives)
Discussion-based courses in international relations rely on students’ careful reading of complex texts in advance of class. But instructors face a perennial problem: many students do not read effectively, or at all. We argue that students often want to, but do not always know how to, read such material effectively. With instruction and guidance on effective reading strategies, students can improve reading comprehension. To test our hypotheses, we measure the effects of (1) receiving course-preparation assignment worksheets (CPAs); (2) receiving critical/active reading strategies instruction; or (3) receiving both interventions (1) and (2) on students’ consumption and comprehension of reading assignments. Across four sections of an “International Security Studies” course, we tested our hypotheses using student self-assessment. Results indicate that CPAs and reading strategies instruction both individually increase student consumption of assigned material and comprehension thereof, but with intriguing nuance across the range of possible responses on our self-assessment. Generally, no added benefit upon comprehension is realized by offering both treatments together. These effective reading strategies offer benefits beyond our classroom, imparting students with long-lasting skills and offering instructors easily adaptable activities for use in other courses.
"Promoting College Reading Completion and Comprehension with Reading Guides: Lessons Learned Regarding the Role of Form, Function, and Frequency" (with Karin Becker and Paul Bezerra; revise & resubmit, Journal of Political Science Education)
College faculty often struggle with getting their students to read assigned materials. Even if students do read, they may not read closely or critically. Not only does the lack of effective reading undermine understanding, but it also hampers class discussions and engagement. To promote close and critical reading in a required, upper-division International Security Studies course, we offered optional reading guide worksheets as tools to increase students’ reading comprehension and completion. While our reading guides helped students focus on key terms and lesson objectives, flaws in our implementation produced a lack of perceptual value and extrinsic motivation in using the reading guides. In this article, we offer our lessons learned from the use of reading guides, focusing on their form, function, and frequency. These findings equip faculty with useful guidance in how to design and implement effective reading guides across the disciplines. Book Reviews:
Review of Nichols, Angela. Impact, Legitimacy, and Limitations of Truth Commissions. Democracy and Security. Vol. 15, No. 4: 408-410 (2019). Online here. Review of Kidd, Dustin. Social Media Freaks: Digital Identity in the Network Society. Terrorism and Political Violence. Vol. 31, No. 6: 1347-1349 (2019). Online here. Review of Scott, Erik R. "The Hijacking of Aeroflot Flight 244: States and Statelessness in the Late Cold War," H-Diplo. June 2019. Online here. Review of de la Calle, Luis, Nationalist Violence in Postwar Europe. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. November 2017. Online here. Working Papers and Work in Progress:
"Partners in Crime: Comparative Advantage and Rebel Kidnapping"
What explains cooperation between armed groups? Existing scholarship highlights groups' similarities -- such as shared ideology or goals -- to underwrite cooperation. But armed groups frequently cooperate without such shared values or traits. In this paper, I show that it is precisely groups' differences, not their similarities, that open up avenues to cooperation. To do so, I focus on kidnapping, an underexplored but common form of non-state actor violence against civilians, to explain cooperation across different types of armed actors. I apply the economics concepts of comparative advantage and vertical and horizontal integration to demonstrate that rebels and criminal gangs -- organizations that typically eschew collaboration -- cooperate in producing violence. Specifically, rebels outsource part of the kidnapping process to criminal gangs as part of their drive to expand their market territory, much as a firm might. Drawing on extensive interviews with armed groups and security personnel from Colombia, I theorize the conditions under which rebels are likely to "outsource" violence to criminal gangs or produce kidnapping violence "in house." This paper explains the organizational dynamics of armed group cooperation, as both sides exercise their specialization to achieve mutual benefits -- and commit systematic violence against civilians.
"Trust a Few: The Political Consequences of Wartime Violence" (with Elsa Voytas)
How does wartime violence affect trust? Existing research on the political consequences of violence is remarkably split: while some scholars argue that political violence generates prosocial behaviors and beliefs (like increased political participation and sentiments of reconciliation), others argue that violence generates antisocial behaviors (like decreased political participation and feelings of revenge). In particular, while most studies on the consequences of war demonstrate an increase in prosocial behavior, studies that focus on social trust show contradictory or null results. We argue that these mixed findings derive from a conflation in much of the literature of in-group trust, out-group trust, generalized trust, and trust in the government -- types of trust that we expect to diverge during conflict. Moreover, we expect that the effects of war on trust will differ by the relationship of research subjects to violence -- whether subjects experienced violence personally and directly, or whether their experience of violence was indirect, experienced by their family, community, or society. In this paper, we conduct a meta-analysis of existing studies on the effects of violence on trust. Understanding the variation in the political consequences of wartime violence has important implications for broader societal phenomena, including durable peace, reconciliation, and democratic consolidation.
"Prisoner Dilemmas: Conceptualizing Captivity in Conflict"
Hostage taking, detention, and abduction are pervasive in armed conflict. How are these forms of captivity related, and what do they achieve? This paper brings together disparate literatures on forms of detention and abduction to explore the interconnections between forms of captivity often classified as "kidnapping'' and consider the role of captivity in international security. To do so, I introduce a conceptual typology of captivity to show how variation in abduction and coercion in captivity -- where, and why captives are held -- condition dynamics of violence and the possibility of release. Then, I identify promising new avenues for a research agenda on captivity in conflict, examining the causes, consequences, and responses to captivity. In doing so, this paper uncovers relevant similarities and differences across forms of captivity, crucial for scholarly exploration and policymakers' response.
"Release, Kill, Rule, Recruit: The Role of Reputation in Hostage-Taking Violence"
During armed conflict, many armed groups including rebels, terrorists, and paramilitaries take hostages. While some hostages are released relatively unscathed in exchange for ransom or other concessions, others suffer terrible -- often fatal -- violence at the hands of their captors. What explains this variation? In this paper, I argue that armed group kidnapping behavior is central to the group’s reputation, and is a function of their territory of recruitment. If the kidnapping group operates in a territory with local support, then it will operate as a "stationary bandit,” prioritizing a reputation for reliability through repeat interactions. Such groups will use kidnapping as a method of exchange, and will be likely to release hostages alive. Conversely, armed groups that do not count on local recruits will use kidnapping as a means to signal their resolve and intentions more broadly, to attract recruits and support from outside their territory. These groups will be more likely to privilege spectacular violence over exchange. Using evidence from an original, cross-national dataset of the kidnapping behavior of 230 armed groups, I demonstrate that geography of recruitment is a crucial factor in explaining hostage outcomes.
Colombia (2017, 2018, 2019) Israel and the West Bank (2006)