A recent investigation of the horrid conditions suffered by ISIS hostages sheds light on a disconcerting reality: A hostage’s nationality very often determines his or her fate. Of the at least 23 foreigners kidnapped by Syrian insurgents since 2012, the vast majority has been freed in exchange for large ransoms, while every American and Briton—from countries with strict no-ransom policies—has either been killed or remains in captivity.
And so continues the disturbing trend in disparate and incompatible policies on ransom payments to terrorist organizations: Some nations are willing to pay to bring their nationals home while others are not. While publically denying paying ransoms, certain countries—mainly in Europe and Qatar—have paid considerable sums to end hostage situations.
A New York Times investigation found that France, for example, has paid almost $60 million to al-Qaeda and its affiliates since 2008. In May 2014, Italians allegedly paid ISIS to release countryman Federico Motka; in 2009 Switzerland reportedly paid al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb 8 million euros for three hostages.
Ransom has become an important source of revenue for terrorist groups in the Middle East. Since 2008, at least $125 million in ransom has been paid to al-Qaeda and its affiliates, including a single 30 million euro payment in 2013 for four French nationals. Abu Bashir, head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, wrote in 2012 that the “precious treasure” of hostage financing accounts for roughly half of the group’s revenue.
In contrast, the United States has refused ransom demands. In 1980, after Iranian revolutionaries kidnapped 52 Americans, President Carter famously made the American policy clear: “The United States will not yield to blackmail.” In 2002 President Bush repeated the American position: “We, of course, don’t pay ransom for any hostages.” In 2014 when ISIS captors of American journalist James Foley demanded payment for his release, America refused.
The policy has horrible consequences for those held in captivity, evidenced by the brutal beheadings of James Foley and others. Yet, the rationale remains sounds. Paying ransom incurs greater future damages by financing terrorist organizations and creates incentive for more kidnappings. The perpetuation of kidnappings from ransom payments has been well studied. In fact, Americans are kidnapped at a far lower rate than Europeans.
However, for this policy to be effective, we need a unified international commitment to stop ransom payments. To disrupt the financial stability of terrorist groups requires all countries to cooperate. Further, difference in policies puts more people at risk by creating inflated expectations for captors. When Moscow failed to meet ransom demands, ISIS members shot Russian Sergey Gorbunov and told the other hostages: “This is what will happen to you if your government doesn’t pay.”
Indeed, there have been empty commitments from the international community to refrain from such payments. In 2013 the G8 announced that the nations would “unequivocally reject the payment of ransom to terrorists.” Further, in January 2014 the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution that called upon members to prevent terrorist organizations from receiving ransom funding.
We need a faithful dedication to a unified international policy on how to deal with hostage negotiations. This will require painful decisions from the nations that currently pay ransoms. In any hostage situation, it makes sense that a country will do everything responsible to bring its citizens home safely. However, we must refrain from paying ransoms, trusting the logic that they only hurt in the long run.
Further, a unified policy requires mutual pressure. The United States has not publically condemned European nations for paying ransoms for hostages. Even though this remains an incredibly sensitive issue, countries must be held to the standards that they have previously committed to—especially when the consequences are so steep.
The current disparity benefits no one. Instead a unified, international front is needed to stop funding terrorist groups and perpetuating their kidnappings.
James F. Kelleher ’17 is a Crimson editorial writer in Currier House.
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