“We do not make concessions to terrorists,” [State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie] Harf told reporters. “We do not pay ransoms.”
But should the United States pay ransoms? Should the United States have stumped up the $132 million ISIS reportedly demanded in exchange for journalist James Foley? Should America try and negotiate the release of the other Americans currently held around the world? After all, other countries, notably those in Europe, do pay for the release of their citizens. This is the debate currently underway as James Foley's beheading continues to reverberate through the media, and fellow American journalist Steven Sotloff awaits his fate. And this is the theme of this week's exchange.
First off, an incredible investigation into ransoms by the New York Times, published just on a month ago. It begins in 2003, with three suitcases containing 5 million euros heading into the Sahara Desert. It then moves on to other episodes, revealing an intricate sequence of kidnappings and payoffs (often disguised as “aid”) that the US State Department claims is bankrolling terror:
“The stream of income generated is so significant that internal documents show that as long as five years ago, Al Qaeda’s central command in Pakistan was overseeing negotiations for hostages grabbed as far afield as Africa. Moreover, the accounts of survivors held thousands of miles apart show that the three main affiliates of the terrorist group — Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in northern Africa; Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen; and the Shabab, in Somalia — are coordinating their efforts and abiding by a common kidnapping protocol.
To minimize the risk to their fighters, the terror affiliates have outsourced the seizing of hostages to criminal groups who work on commission. Negotiators take a reported 10 percent of the ransom, creating an incentive on both sides of the Mediterranean to increase the overall payout, according to former hostages and senior counterterrorism officials.”
As the New York Times' investigation notes, repeatedly, it is the continental European countries that seem most inclined to stump up to get their citizens back. But what is the rationale for countries like Britain and the United States not to? The Economist explains:
“America's policy has developed over time. In the early 1800s the founding fathers stopped paying African rulers for protection from pirates, leading to the Barbary wars. In 1980, after Iranian revolutionaries took 52 Americans hostage, President Jimmy Carter made the policy explicit: “Our position is clear. The United States will not yield to blackmail.” In 2002 George W. Bush reiterated America's stance, saying, “We, of course, don’t pay ransom for any hostages…
…According to David Cohen, a Treasury official who deals with terrorist finances, “Ransom payments lead to future kidnappings, and future kidnappings lead to additional ransom payments. And it all builds the capacity of terrorist organisations to conduct attacks.”
In a column in Politico magazine, Tom Ricks provides one of the most compelling points of view – that of a journalist who has reported from Iraq. His take? He supports the US Government's non-negotiation policy:
“One day in 2007, I was being shown my bedroom at the Washington Post’s bureau and house in Baghdad, where I was spending some time covering the U.S. military side of the war. I noticed an old AK-47 rifle leaning against the wall near the door of my room. The Post’s local security chief, a tough-minded Iraqi, explained that it was for me to use “if they come into the house.” When I heard “them” come upstairs, he advised, I should fire most of the weapon’s magazine through the door, which might hold them off for a few minutes. But, he added, “save one for yourself.”
Moving from the perspective of someone who could be kidnapped to someone who would have to negotiate a ransom, Steve Coll takes us into the training of a Washington Post “operations cell” – a team setup to respond incase one of their journalists is abducted:
“Ransom negotiations are different from other business bargaining, because you don’t sit with your counterpart face to face. It’s harder to read body language and signals. Ransom talks are a call-and-response process, with time lags and some uncertainty about how the other side is hearing your messages. These gaps create risk. The question facing a corporation in our position, he said, would be: What’s your opening bid? This was where our consultant wanted clarity. “There are consultants out there—you can work with them if you want—that will tell you, ‘Open with twenty per cent of the market price.’ That’s a way to go. But I don’t do that. I open at about eighty per cent.
“Twenty per cent,” he continued, “twenty per cent—that’s where you get your mutilations.” Fingers, ears. We indicated our firm agreement with his thinking, should it ever come to that.”
And finally, James Traub gets straight to the heart of the matter and dissects whether paying a ransom would have saved James Foley:
“This raises an agonizing question: Should states pay ransom to kidnappers? If you are a friend or loved one of the victim, the answer is obviously yes. But even a more remote observer could cite the moral argument that the obligation to treat people as ends rather than means — what Kant calls the “categorical imperative” — forbids one to place the life of the abductee in a balance with abstract goods, like “sending a message” that kidnapping doesn't pay. In any case, the consequences of capitulation are remote and hypothetical; the life is terribly real.”
For my own part, I honestly don't know where I stand on this issue. There is no disputing that the kidnapping industrial complex appears to go after Europeans because their countries will pay. But it would be too simple to merely take this statistic as justification for the policies of the United States and Britain. Similarly with the fact that Al Qaeda and others have integrated Kidnapping fundamentally into their operating model. After all, these terror groups are anything if not enterprising. Does anyone believe they wouldn't find another source of revenue? At the same time, America's policy has hardly given it's citizens a free pass. Just look at the amount of American's currently languishing around the world, with little hope that their country will come to their rescue. And who can rightly state there would be more if the US were to negotiate. No, there is no simple answer to this dilemma. No matter what the opinion pages claim. Just endless grey.