In an interview with the BBC, the French journalist Nicolas Henin paid a moving tribute to his friend James Foley, and discussed their time together as hostages of Islamic State. Henin mentioned his belief that his release was secured due to negotiation by the French government with his kidnappers, and also highlighted the position of the British and American governments, which refuse to make deals with kidnappers. It was also confirmed that Foley’s family had received a message warning that he would be killed earlier this month and that captors had demanded a ransom of $132 million last year.
Both the UK and US have been highly vocal in recent years about their refusal to pay ransoms for the release of their citizens captured abroad, and have periodically sought to dissuade families and employers of hostages from making payments, arguing that to do so rewards criminality and can encourage future kidnappings. In a 2012 speech David S Cohen, the US under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, stated that the US does not make deals, ‘whether in ransom payments, in prisoner exchanges or other policy concessions’.
David Cameron placed the issue at the centre of the UK’s presidency of the G8 in 2013. He persuaded other leaders to sign a communique that argued ransoms enabled terrorist groups to successfully recruit, and enhanced their operational capability.
The UK also marked as a success the passing of a UN Security Council resolution in January this year which expressed 'determination... to secure the safe release of hostages without ransom payments or political concessions'. Interestingly though, a UN press release noted the remarks of an Argentinean official who maintained that the circumstances in each kidnapping situation would be different, and emphasised that the UNSC’s response was not intended to ‘undermine the possible payment of ransom for hostages’.
In Europe, governments may not publicly admit to paying ransoms, but behind closed doors they have proved willing to do so if other options to retrieve their citizens seem unlikely to succeed. Italy, which allegedly now pays ransoms, tried to establish an alternative in the past. In 1991, Italy put in place legislation to freeze the assets of the families of hostages, in order to prevent them from paying ransoms in Mafia kidnap cases. This policy’s flaws were starkly highlighted during the high profile kidnapping a businessman, Giuseppe Soffiantini, in 1998. Despite a number of leads, the fumbling of authorities meant that his release was only secured after eight months of captivity, once his family were given special permission to pay. Today, the Italian, French, Swiss, German and Spanish governments are alleged to have paid for the release of their citizens taken hostage by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in one of the world’s hotspots of kidnapping – the Sahelian region of northwest Africa.
Maritime insecurity in the Indian Ocean has also attracted media attention, in part because hostage-taking there was deemed to have become a business-model for Somali pirates. While both the UK and US governments refuse to countenance the payment of ransoms for the release of their citizens held in northeastern Somalia, despite threats, neither government has intervened in cases where shipping companies or the relatives of a hostage have paid a ransom. For the shipping industry, it has remained a hard-held belief that ransom payments remain the safest option for ensuring their kidnapped colleagues are brought home alive.
There is, of course, a difference between situations where hostages are taken by terrorist groups, rather than by criminals. The impact of paying ransoms to a group with violent political ambitions is much further reaching. For much of its history, AQIM was seen as a lesser outpost of Al-Qaida, but it has grown in size and capability in recent years. While this is partly due to the 2012 coup in Mali and the outflow of weapons from Libya following the fall of Gaddafi, income from ransom payments – which, according to an estimate in a recent New York Times investigation, have totalled at least £55.1 million ($91.5 million) since 2008 – has been key. In 2010, Algeria was instrumental in starting discussions about a possible ban on ransoms at a UN human rights meeting, making the tacit argument that for governments in North and West Africa, the payment of ransoms by their Western counterparts enables groups like AQIM to have a devastatingly destabilising effect in their region.
Of course, for the families and friends of hostages, bringing back their loved ones is deemed worth any price. But for governments that take strong foreign policy positions on issues overseas, there is a need to weigh up the political consequences of allowing funds to fall into the hands of groups that intend to use money for extremist political ends.
However, there are few reliable alternative methods to rescue hostages, especially for countries without the military power to instigate complex hostage rescue operations. Even for the US, whose Navy SEALs mounted a successful raid to rescue two aid-workers kidnapped in north-eastern Somalia in 2012, other rescue missions have failed. Some, such as the attempt to free the Scottish aid-worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan in 2010, have resulted in the deaths of hostages.
Global consensus on the issue of ransom payments is the only way that kidnapping might cease to be seen by terrorists as a way of bolstering their funds. But hostages may still be taken for other reasons. In his account of his 2008 kidnapping by AQIM, the Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler describes his Islamist kidnappers’ most powerful weapons to be their belief that their victory is preordained, no matter if it happens in tens or thousands of years, and their active desire to die in the process. In a world where the ideologies of terrorist groups continue to confound Western governments, there are no easy options.
To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback