WASHINGTON, JERUSALEM -- The decision by the kidnappers of Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden to extend their deadline by two days provides reasons for optimism, according to terrorism experts.
"It's giving us more hope because if it was al-Qaeda, they wouldn't have given us this option," said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a Washington-based group that studies terrorism. "If they had wanted just to kill them, they would have killed them already."
The gangs involved in Iraq's epidemic of hostage takings are a disparate group ranging from the jihadist ideologues linked to al-Qaeda to criminal gangs that prey on wealthy Iraqis whose families are ready to pay large ransoms to liberate their kin.
But experience has shown that hostages have a better chance of survival if money is the main goal of the kidnappers rather than ideological zeal.
The group that seized Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden on Nov. 26 along with two fellow members of the Christian Peacemaker Team, a Briton and an American, is a previously unknown entity calling itself Swords of Truth.
Neil Quilliam, a senior security analyst with the London-based Control Risks Group, which provides security for contractors, journalists and government officials in Iraq, said that humanitarian work is not enough to shield Westerners from the threat of kidnap, as evidenced by the kidnapping and murder of Margaret Hassan of CARE International last year.
"The risk is essentially the same for any Western organization operating in Iraq. The fact that they're NGOs undertaking humanitarian work doesn't diminish their risk in any way," Mr. Quilliam said.
There are, loosely, three categories of kidnapper in today's Iraq, he said. The first is criminal gangs, who carry out as many as 90 per cent of the kidnappings and are in it purely for profit. The second consist of Shia groups operating in Southern Iraq, who use kidnappings as a method of asserting control.
The third, and most deadly, are what he describes as the Sunni "hardened ideologues."
"They are kidnapping individuals for ideological reasons, and the kind of terrible demands they make are non-negotiable," Mr. Quilliam said. It is these groups that most often release videos of their captives, and these groups that are most likely to kill when their demands are not met.
Charles Heyman, senior defence analyst at Jane's Strategic Advisory Services, sees the extension of the deadline as an indication that the kidnappers are willing to talk.
He also believes that that the Canadians have a better chance of being released than the American and the Briton because Canadian forces are not occupying Iraq. Judging from the cases where foreign detainees have been freed, Mr. Heyman believes that "caving into their demands almost always works. Giving them money tends to work."
Last year, an Italian MP stirred controversy when he said that his government had paid $1-million (U.S.) in ransom to secure the release of two female Italian aid workers, who were held hostage for three weeks. Italian authorities denied that ransom was paid, although intelligence officials said there had been negotiations through mediators.
Magnus Ranstorp, research director at the Swedish Defence College in Stockholm, said that the Italians and the French are likely to go much further than the British or even the Canadians in giving in to the kidnappers.
Boaz Ganor, executive director of Israel's International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, said that when the whereabouts of the hostages is unknown, and their captors are making demands through the news media, those trying to negotiate a release face an almost insurmountable task.
"This is a kidnap situation where, probably, the security forces don't know where the hostages are held," he said. He said that communication is probably taking place through the media and it's not unreasonable to think that the kidnappers would be willing to die in any confrontation. "In these situations, the leverage is very, very limited."
However, with high-profile Muslim clerics condemning the hostage-taking and speaking in support of the Christian Peacemakers, all hope is not lost for the four men.
"If they have a concrete feeling that the vast majority of people in their arena are opposing, it definitely can be influential," he said.