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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.

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Some, such as Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, argue that ransom payments will strengthen AQIM and lead to further kidnappings. That makes sense logically: more money for AQIM (or the release of imprisoned members, another demand AQIM has made in the past) could give the group more power. J. Peter Pham argues that the latest kidnapping, in the Nigerien capital of Niamey, indicates that AQIM has indeed expanded its reach.

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Others see the situation differently. Clint Watts at Selected Wisdom writes, “Repeated AQIM kidnappings and ransoms have resulted in no apparent increase in AQIM capability.” Expanding on this idea, Watts sees AQIM’s move into Niamey as a sign of desperation:

In the beginning, AQIM’s kidnapping program occurred rather easily. Western tourists and workers floated into interior Mali and Niger as part of a Timbuktu history expedition or multi-national corporation (MNC) mineral extraction project. However, each kidnapping resulted in increased security from Sahel central governments and the West as well as fewer prey floating into the desert. To sustain the kidnappings and subsequent revenues, AQIM must then move further from the desert into more urban areas (Niamey) to secure more Western hostages. AQIM’s long lines of logistics result in greater operational risk, more intermediaries between kidnapping and safe haven, and greater costs due to distance and graft…For AQIM, kidnapping operations, in my opinion, weaken their capability and credibility as a terrorist organization.

The post is worth reading in full. (I should say that Watts seems pro-rescue, but some of his ideas support my pro-ransom arguments.)

Watts’ suggestion that AQIM has not expanded receives some confirmation from the limited data that is available. Both in terms of numbers of incidents (1 in 2007, 2 in 2008, 6 in 2009, 2 in 2010, and 1 so far in 2011) and numbers of victims (see the chart below), 2009 exceeded 2010 for kidnappings. With such a small sample it is hard to identify a trend, but the absence of a clear increase in kidnappings should give us some pause when we assume more money equals more kidnappings.

As I hope to discuss in my next post on preventive solutions, there are approaches that could attack the economic roots of the problem (I don’t mean development, the usual cliche answer, but rather decreasing the availability of victims and increasing the costs to kidnappers of seizing victims) as well as the political roots. Paying the occasional ransom to kidnappers while taking steps to prevent kidnappings seems like a worthwhile trade-off if it saves lives.

I look forward to hearing rebuttals. There are arguments for other approaches (armed rescues, long-term military intervention, etc.), and I hope to address those in my next piece.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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