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Is it better to pay a ransom for hostages, or stage a rescue?

The Sahel region of Africa has seen many hostage crises in recent years, staged by a local branch of Al Qaeda, and hostages' home countries have had to make difficult decisions.

By Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / January 27, 2011

An unnamed British hostage is seen in this undated handout released February 18, 2009.



Last week I compiled a list of hostage crises in the Sahel (specifically Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) involving Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). I have since found another list (including kidnappings that had nothing to do with AQIM). These pieces give some background for a running debate about whether it is better to pay ransoms to AQIM for hostages or to attempt to rescue hostages by force. The ultimate question for me is how to move beyond the rescues vs. ransoms dilemma, a topic I will address in the next (and hopefully final) installment of this series. In the meantime, looking at the ransoms vs. rescues question raises key issues concerning patterns in kidnappings and the expansion or stagnation of AQIM.

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I agree that hostage situations should be taken case-by-case, but I generally support paying ransoms in the Sahel. No one wants to negotiate with Al Qaeda franchises, but some European and Sahelian governments have made the tough decision to do so and have succeeded in getting hostages released. Assuming rumors that Spain and Switzerland have paid ransoms are true, I am in line with their approach, and less in line with the recent French approach. For me, the decisive argument is that the ransomed hostages escaped alive.

Additionally, military rescues are and will remain risky. Historically, even some of the highest-profile successful hostage rescues, such as Operation Entebbe, have involved casualties of hostages and rescuers. Successful rescues seem to depend on the confluence of a number of factors: in particular, knowing the precise location of the victim and having surprise on the rescuers’ side help contribute to success. Critical factors like those will not always be in place, especially in a region as remote as the Sahel. Indeed, out of two attempted recent armed rescues in the Sahel, one was followed by the death of Michel Germaneau in Mali, and the other resulted directly in the deaths of Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory, as well as four French soldiers, in Niger. In the former case, rescuers did not find Germaneau’s location, and in the latter case the rescue turned into a deadly battle.

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