The brutal murders of two American journalists and a British aid worker by the Islamic State raise yet again the question of whether the United States, or any government, should pay for the release of its citizens captured by terrorist organizations. The American and British governments maintain that they will not negotiate with terrorists, while others, like France and Spain, have implicitly acknowledged that they have facilitated such transactions, if not actually made the payments themselves. Turkey secured the release of 49 diplomats and their families held by ISIS; the details of the release have yet to be made public. First, let’s acknowledge that these situations are among the most wrenching that any policy maker can face: every decision will be second-guessed and even the “right” decision may well end with the death of the prisoner.
American and British policy is premised on the assumption that terrorist kidnappings are fundamentally different from most criminal kidnappings, at least as they occur in our countries. In the latter instance, these are usually one-off events where the perpetrators are interested in profit, not notoriety. Conversely, terrorist groups want both money and attention, and since they are generally operating in poorly governed areas, are less likely than criminals to fear the long arm of the law. Moreover, these organizations have larger political aims, most of which are inimical to the interests of the United States and its allies. The very point of kidnapping an American is to win adherents (by humiliating the American colossus), force the United States to limit its activities and those of its citizens in the area of conflict, and gain funds to further the terrorists’ activities. With those aims in mind, paying a ransom would encourage more kidnappings—if not by that particular group, then certainly by others that see the direct profit in doing so. Money paid for ransom would buy more arms, more explosives, and more capabilities to attack. Why not kidnap again when the benefit is so obvious?
One can see an echo of this in places like Mexico, where criminal kidnappings have reached epidemic proportions. It is a lucrative business, made attractive by the willingness of the victims’ families to pay whatever is necessary to get their loved ones back. If that is the dynamic in a criminal situation, such lessons are likely to be learned very well by terrorist organizations.
To say that one will not pay ransom does not close the door to other actions. The release of American journalist Peter Curtis days after the August 19 murder of James Foley, another American journalist, is an example that the intervention of third parties on humanitarian grounds can work. In the case of Curtis, it may also have helped that Qatar, which was influential in his release, had to have been mindful of its relations with the United States even as it supports some of the more extreme elements in places like Syria. In some cases, patience (although frustrating) has been a virtue, with hostages released after long captivity when their captors finally came to the conclusion that the costs outweighed the benefit (and were unwilling to face the opprobrium that would come with murder). Some captives have escaped on their own or developed a relationship with their captors that led to release. Although the risks to hostages can be high, rescue attempts become more attractive when there is good intelligence and the risks to the captives seem to be rising. And finally, there is deterrence: the knowledge that ultimately, the United States and its agents will track down those guilty of terrorist kidnappings.
While it might be tempting to treat each terrorist kidnapping the same, each must be treated on its own merits, depending on the nature of the group, the possible location of the captives, the group’s aims vis-à-vis the United States and its allies, and the existence of possible intermediaries. All of these factors, and more, should enter into the decisions on the right tactic. The only constant, however, should be the continued refusal to pay a monetary or political price for release.
Robert Loftis is a Pardee School of Global Studies and College of Arts & Sciences professor of the practice of international relations and a former US ambassador to Lesotho. He served at the State Department and the US Foreign Service from 1980 to 2012. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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