Why Don't the U.S. and U.K. Pay Ransoms for Hostages?

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 (Isis). 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 $132m 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, persuading other leaders to sign a communique that argued ransoms enabled terrorist groups to successfully recruit, and enhanced their operational capability.

Other European 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 now pays ransoms, having tried to establish an alternative in the past, is one example. In the early 1990s, 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. When it failed to stop kidnappings from taking place the policy was eventually reversed. Today, Italy is alleged to have paid for the release of its citizens taken hostage in countries in the Sahel, as is France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland.

When hostages are taken by terrorist groups, rather than by criminals, the impact of ransom payments is arguably further reaching. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), which for much of its history was seen as a lesser outpost of al-Qaida, has grown in size and capability, partly due to income from ransom payments which, according to an estimate in arecent New York Times investigation, have totalled at least £55.1m ($91.5m) since 2008. Governments in north and west Africa have called on their western counterparts to stop paying ransoms, because of the destabilising effect that groups like Aqim have in their countries.

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 violent or criminal 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, and some 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 and criminals as a way of bolstering their funds. In a world where the ideologies and operations of terrorist groups continue to confound western governments, there are no easy options.

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