US reconfirms policy of not paying ransoms to terrorists for abducted Americans

But should they? The question has arisen in part because of the grotesque murder of American journalist James Foley, and in part because of an earlier New York Times exposé about our allies against terrorism and the funding they provide by buying the freedom of their citizens.  The White House offered as part of its rebuttal to those questions a rather quick and unequivocal declaration that Foley’s beheading was “absolutely” an act of terror against the United States:


The killing of American journalist James Foley was “absolutely” a terrorist attack, the White House said Friday.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, briefing reporters from Martha’s Vineyard, said Foley’s beheading by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — and the release of an online video showing the aftermath — was a direct assault on the United States.

“When you see somebody killed in such a horrific way, that represents a terrorist attack against our country and against an American citizen,” Rhodes said.

“Clearly, the brutal execution of Jim Foley represented an affront — an attack not just him, but he’s an American, and we see that as an attack on our country when one of our own is killed like that,” he added.

That means the issue of whether we pay terrorists for the release of hostages falls under the doctrine repeated yesterday by State Department spokesperson Marie Harf:

“We believe that paying ransoms or making concessions would put all Americans overseas at greater risk” and would provide funding for groups whose capabilities “we are trying to degrade,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a briefing Thursday.

Harf said it is illegal for any American citizen to pay ransom to a group, such as the Islamic State, that the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization. …

Harf said that ransom payments are “one of the main ways ISIL has been funded. . . .We believe just in 2014 that that’s in the millions of dollars.” ISIL is one of several acronyms that refer to the Islamic State.

That’s been such a cornerstone of American policy for so long that many Americans may not realize that we are now bound to that policy by treaty — at least theoretically.  The Guardian reminds readers of the G8 agreement signed in 2013 that also has a UN Security Council resolution backing it up that prohibits the payment of ransom to terrorist groups as a way to stop funding and incentivizing them, especially when it comes to abductions. Unfortunately, the only two nations that actually abide by that policy are the US and UK:


All major western countries signed a 2013 G8 commitment not to pay ransom to terrorist groups – an accord reinforced by a UN security council resolution along the same lines in January this year. However, only the US and UK have stuck to that commitment, while other European states – including France, Italy, Spain and Germany – have found ways of channelling money to militant groups in exchange for their citizens.

Not only has that incentivized even more kidnappings, but it also has driven the prices out of sight — and certainly out of the realm of possibility for people of modest means to act privately, including the Foleys:

Those ransoms – frequently delivered in the form of cash-filled suitcases handed over in the desert – have had unintended but inevitable consequences. More nationals from those countries have been targeted for kidnap as they represent a guaranteed return, while the intervention of major European states willing to pay millions of euros has inflated the price for other captives, putting the cost beyond the reach of families or employers trying to negotiate privately.

“When states pay vast ransoms, it skews the market, and it’s simply not possible for families to pay that amount,” said David Rohde, a Reuters journalist who was kidnapped in Afghanistan by the Taliban and held for seven months. “The Foleys faced that harsh reality over and over again in this case.”

Those vast ransoms have other consequences as well. The New York Times reported last month that the abduction market has become a critical income stream for terrorist organizations, who need resources to attack the very nations paying the ransoms. In effect, the West is buying its own nooses:

While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year.

In news releases and statements, the United States Treasury Department has cited ransom amounts that, taken together, put the total at around $165 million over the same period.

These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, who funneled the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid, according to interviews conducted for this article with former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The inner workings of the kidnapping business were also revealed in thousands of pages of internal Qaeda documents found by this reporter while on assignment for The Associated Press in northern Mali last year.

In its early years, Al Qaeda received most of its money from deep-pocketed donors, but counterterrorism officials now believe the group finances the bulk of its recruitment, training and arms purchases from ransoms paid to free Europeans.

Put more bluntly, Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of Al Qaeda.


And it’s not like AQ is an investment house looking for nothing but compound interest from that cash. That is why the US and UK have remained adamantly opposed to paying ransoms in exchange for hostages. But wait, some might say, didn’t we cut a deal to get Bowe Bergdahl back from the Taliban — or more accurately, the Haqqani network? Isn’t that a distinction without a difference?  Not really, the White House’s Eric Schultz told reporters today:

This actually is a distinction with a difference. The US is engaged in hostilities with the Taliban as one of the combatants in the Afghan civil war, hold Taliban prisoners, and Bergdahl served in the armed forces at the time of his capture. It’s not uncommon for combatants in wars to conduct prisoner swaps, although the wisdom of this particular swap is certainly debatable. (There is also some question about whether it involved cash, although mostly just speculation.)  The US military has a special obligation to those who serve in their ranks to operate within the bounds of war to secure their release when captured, whether through liberation or negotiation. After all, the military put them in a war zone with that risk in place. That doesn’t apply to Americans traveling on their own volition — bravely, certainly — to dangerous areas.

Former abductee David Rohde wants a national and international debate on the no-ransom policy:

This spring, four French and two Spanish journalists held hostage by Islamic State extremists were freed—after the French and Spanish governments paid ransoms through intermediaries. The U.S. government refused to negotiate or pay a ransom in Foley’s case or for any other American captives—including my own abduction by the Taliban five years ago. With the help of an Afghan journalist abducted with me, I was lucky enough to escape. But today Foley is dead and Islamic State militants now say Steven Sotloff, a journalist for Time magazine whom the group also captured, will be killed if the United States does not stop bombing its fighters in Iraq

There are no easy answers in kidnapping cases. The United States cannot allow terrorist groups to control its foreign policy. One clear lesson that has emerged in recent years, however, is that security threats are more effectively countered by united American and European action. The divergent U.S. and European approach to abductions fails to deter captors or consistently safeguard victims. …

In the days and weeks ahead, the Foley family will speak for themselves about their ordeal. But the payment of ransoms and abduction of foreigners must emerge from the shadows. It must be publicly debated. American and European policymakers should be forced to answer for their actions.


That should start by demanding that our partners stick to the treaty they’ve already signed, and explain why they’re undermining that Western unity by paying massive ransoms. They may claim that they can’t sustain that policy politically, but it seems to be sustainable in the US and UK, so that’s not terribly convincing. There’s also nothing wrong with a national debate on the policy — or any policy — but it should take into account the fact that the West would be in essence funding the kidnappings and terrorist attacks that target ourselves, which seems like a very unsustainable policy in the long run.

William Saletan agrees, arguing we should punish terrorism rather than reward it:

David Rohde, a Reuters columnist and former New York Times reporter who was kidnapped in Afghanistan—and escaped after the U.S. refused to ransom him from the Taliban—accepts this framework of enemy-imposed consequences. While blaming ISIS for Foley’s death, he writes that the gap between U.S. and European ransom policies “can doom the Americans” held in captivity. The headline over Rohde’s column asks: “Did America’s policy on ransom contribute to James Foley’s killing?” On Wednesday, Foley’s brother said of ISIS’s hostages, “There’s more that can be done. The footprint has been laid by some of the other nations.” That sounds like an appeal for European-style flexibility. …

James Traub, writing in Foreign Policy, argues that Obama “has an obligation to consider the consequences of his decisions.” The rationale for bargaining, he notes, is that it’s wrong “to place the life of the abductee in a balance with abstract goods, like ‘sending a message’ that kidnapping doesn’t pay.” Traub adds that “the consequences of capitulation are remote and hypothetical; the life is terribly real.”

But the lives of future hostages, and of the Syrians and Iraqis slain by ISIS every day, are just as real. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp points out, research has shown that kidnapping, like other profit-seeking enterprises, increases in response to payments. Investigative work by New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi shows that al-Qaida and its affiliates have followed this logic. They’ve snatched more than 50 foreign citizens in the last five years, and the price for their release has gone up. A decade ago, it was around $200,000 per hostage. Now the highest reported payment is $10 million. For Foley’s release, the New York Times says ISIS demanded 100 million euros, about $132 million.

If you pay the ransom, you’re not just fueling the kidnap market. As Slate’s Josh Keating notes, you’re also funding ISIS’s war and its atrocities against civilians. Callimachi found that al-Qaida and its affiliates reaped a minimum of $125 million in ransoms in the last five years, and $66 million just last year. It’s now al-Qaida’s main revenue stream. And the demands won’t end with money. In addition to Sotloff, ISIS reportedly has at least three more American hostages it’s threatening to kill. It also has some Brits. The New York Times says ISIS “has sent a laundry list of demands for the release of the foreigners, starting with money but also prisoner swaps.” Altogether, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, ISIS and other extremists in Syria have about 20 foreign journalists.

I fear for those reporters. I’m horrified by Foley’s death, and I know Sotloff is probably next. But we have to think about the next 20 hostages, and the 20 after that. Every time we ransom a reporter, we put a price tag on the next one. The only way to extinguish the market in kidnapping is to make it worthless. That means refusing to pay. And what about the Iraqi and Syrian civilians ISIS slaughters every day? If we halt our airstrikes to appease ISIS, as the executioner in the video implicitly demands, aren’t we sacrificing them for a few Americans?


Indeed, and perhaps Rudyard Kipling put it best:

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: –
“Though we know we should defeat you,
we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

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