President Obama is reportedly gearing up to allow family members and companies to pay ransoms for the release of hostages held by Islamic radicals. The move will end a long-standing U.S. policy that prohibits the payment of ransoms, and of not negotiating with terrorists. Though the latter has been at least broken by the deeply unpopular trade of Army deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration has threatened to enforce the former.
However, a new investigation of available data shows paying ransoms to Islamic radicals holding Western hostages increases both kidnappings and death rates, rather than having the intended effect of saving lives.
Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global enterprise for al Qaeda, Boko Haram, al Shabaab, the Taliban (particularly the Haqqani Network), and other Islamic radical groups seeking to bankroll established and new groups and operations worldwide.
Most European governments deny paying ransoms, but according to the U.S. Treasury Department, from 2008 to 2014 roughly $165 million has been paid to al Qaeda and its affiliates.
These payments were made either directly from European governments, which represent the vast majority, or through third-party proxies in the form of businesses and organizations who often attempt to pass them off as humanitarian or economic development aid. A whopping $66 million was paid just in the last year, alone.
This wealth transfer from Europe to terror represents a marked shift in how these organizations have funded themselves in the past to the present. Thousands of pages of internal al Qaeda documents found in northern Mali last year revealed the “inner workings” of the kidnapping business, which confirmed conversations PPD has had with multiple retired and active U.S. intel officials.
It was historically the case that al Qaeda received funding and donations from rich, radical sympathetic donors from various countries, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and various other usual suspect nations. However, intel officials say these groups now finance their operations, to include recruitment, training and weapons purchases from ransoms paid to free captive Europeans.
The predominant problem with this policy, which they repeatedly deny engaging in, is that it only leads to more kidnappings and there is no evidence to suggest that it reduces the lives lost in a participating country. Let’s toggle between two graphs published by The New York Times last year that — although the data needs updating — illustrates the argument.
As we can clearly see from the tragic policy adopted by France, the Western European country has ended up paying the most in kidnap ransoms to terror groups by far. But, as we can see from the data below, it only results in a higher number of citizens targeted for kidnapping, and are consequently killed because of the obvious and not-so obvious risks of being in captivity.
France far and away has the largest number of hostages killed in captivity, either by their captors or from some other condition. The United States, on the other hand, which had zero citizens released for ransom, has not been a particularly attractive target for radical Islamic groups.
It is very important to remember that the U.S has a significantly higher population than the other countries on the list, a factor that must be controlled for along with travel to high-risk regions. In fact, from 2008 to 2014, while President Obama largely adhered to the long-standing policy, there wasn’t a single American killed by captors and only 3 kidnappings for a country of over $300 million.
Western countries have signed numerous international agreements in the past calling for an end to ransom paying, including as recently as last year at a Group of 8 summit, where some of the biggest hypocrite ransom-paying countries in Europe signed a declaration agreeing not to pay.
The UK and the US have spearheaded efforts at the UN to ban the payment of ransoms, including Resolution 2133, which passed by the Security Council in January 2014. It reads, in part, as follows:
Strongly condemning incidents of kidnapping and hostage-taking committed by terrorist groups for any purpose, including raising funds or gaining political concessions,
Expressing concern at the increase in incidents of kidnapping and hostagetaking committed by terrorist groups with the aim of raising funds, or gaining political concessions, in particular the increase in kidnappings by al-Qaida and its affiliated groups, and underscoring that the payment of ransoms to terrorists funds future kidnappings and hostage-takings which creates more victims and perpetuates the problem,
Expressing its determination to prevent kidnapping and hostage-taking committed by terrorist groups and to secure the safe release of hostages without ransom payments or political concessions, in accordance with applicable international law and, in this regard, noting the work of the Global Counter terrorism Forum (GCTF), in particular its publication of several framework documents and good practices, including in the area of kidnapping for ransom, to complement the work of the relevant United Nations counter-terrorism entities,
At a G8 summit in 2013, leaders were equally clear: “We unequivocally reject the payment of ransoms to terrorists.”
Yet, according to hostages released this year and terror hostage negotiators, governments in Europe — particularly France, Spain and Switzerland — continue to be responsible for what the resolution characterizes as a practice that “creates more victims and perpetuates the problem.” France, alone, paid a ransom of €30 million — approximately $40 million — just in the fall of 2014 to free four Frenchmen held in Mali.
Jihadi Kidnap Ransom Facts
- Islamic State: $35-$45m in the past year
- Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: $20m between 2011 and 2013
- Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb: $75m over the past four years
Source: UN’s al-Qaeda/Taliban monitoring team
What Happens To The Ransom?
As a result of a Feb. 23, 2003 kidnapping of a group of four Swiss tourists, including two 19-year-old women, Islamic terror groups learned how to evolve from just asking for weapons and impossible-to-meet political demands, to demanding a ransom and ensuring Western countries with weak resolve and a lack of political courage pay up. One of the hostages, a 45-year-old German woman, died of dehydration, which panicked European officials.
“The Americans told us over and over not to pay a ransom. And we said to them: ‘We don’t want to pay. But we can’t lose our people,’ ” said a European ambassador, who was one of six senior Western officials with direct knowledge of the kidnapping.
They caved and a year later an al Qaeda operative, known as Abdelaziz al-Muqrin, published a how-to guide outlining the effective strategies to a kidnapping operation, in which he actually cited the successful ransom negotiation of “our brothers in Algeria.”
Where did the money go?
They used the ransom totaling some €5 million, which is roughly $6.2 million in 2015 dollars, as the seed money for the group’s recruiting and training efforts, which led to a series of terror attacks. They are now a regional terror group and were accepted as an official branch of the al Qaeda network, which baptized them al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
As the UN declaration in 2014 claimed, the evidence suggests that continued participation in kidnap ransom payments will lead to even greater demands. In fact, we saw this unfortunate truth play out in September 2014, when Jund al-Khilafah, or Soldiers of the Caliphate, had said they would kill 55-year-old French mountaineering guide Herve Gourdel unless France ended its participation in the bombing campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq within 24 hours.
Gourdel was beheaded shortly after coalition forces pressured the French not to comply, but intel officials believe Mr. Gourdel’s fate was sealed because the group aims to set these countries into the same panic seen in prior kidnappings such as in 2003. Ultimately, they hope, they can extract what used to be impossible-to-meet political demands out of these participating countries. In the meantime, the data indicate that more citizens will be kidnapped and more hostages will die if this practice continues or is expanded as President Obama is reportedly planning to do.
While kidnappings, particularly those that end in death, are horribly tragic situations, when determining policy the interest of the general welfare and the national security of the nation is paramount. It is President Obama’s job to examine the evidence and adhere to the principle responsibilities of the commander-in-chief, not cave to ideology or emotion, especially if they lead to a far greater number of tragedies.