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Islamic State's execution spree challenges governments' ransom policies (+video)

The Islamic State's execution of Briton Alan Henning coincided with the release of David Richard Bolam by a Libyan group. With IS now threatening to execute Abdul-Rahman Kassig, a US aid worker, debate is again raging over ransoms.

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    Abdul-Rahman Kassig standing in front of a truck filled with supplies for Syrian refugees in an undated photo supplied by his family.
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The divisive question of ransom-paying reared up in Britain today as a memorial service for Alan Henning, the taxi driver who was beheaded by Islamic State militants last week, dovetailed with the release of a British hostage who had been held in Libya. Media speculation soared that money was transferred to facilitate the latter's release.

Now, as yet another hostage’s life is being threatened – an American aid worker whose family just released a moving letter from him, written while in captivity – the issue is again raising an international ethical debate about the value of single lives versus the longer-term strategy of preventing future hostage-taking.

The juxtaposition of the two cases in Britain recalls a similar situation in August, this time of two Americans. One, held by an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, was released just days after journalist James Foley became the first of now five Western hostages to be executed on camera by IS. As The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time, the factors driving their fates included being held by different groups with disparate motivations, as well as the individual negotiations. In neither case was a ransom believe to be paid. 

The hostage released Thursday in Libya, David Richard Bolam, had been teaching in Benghazi when he was seized by a local militia group in May.  The government says it was not involved in the negotiations for his release, and the family has denied paying ransom. One anonymous official, quoted by the Telegraph, stood by the British stance. "Not paying ransoms to terrorists prevents millions of pounds reaching terrorists," the source said. "This is not an easy policy to follow – sometimes it is agonizing – but it is right."

Britain takes a hard line, second only to the United States, which resolutely refuses to pay and threatens to prosecute individuals or organizations that do. That stance stands in stark contrast to other European nations that have quietly paid large sums of money to win the release of citizens. Though they also officially deny paying ransom, a New York Times investigation in July essentially blamed ransom-paying nations in Europe for bankrolling terrorist operations and leaving nations divided over what’s right and wrong.

“The Americans told us over and over not to pay a ransom. And we said to them: ‘We don’t want to pay. But we can’t lose our people,’” a European ambassador formerly posted in Algeria told the paper. 

Despite firm official policies, in reality, interpretations are not black-and-white. Writing in The Telegraph today, Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says:

Britain and the United States, unlike many European and Arab nations, hold to a policy that they will not make “substantive concessions” to terrorists. In practice, this is not quite as rigid as it seems. Earlier this year, the United States agreed a prisoner swap with the Taliban in Afghanistan, handing over five detainees in exchange for a captured US soldier.

The US has, of course, gone to great lengths at times to try to rescue its citizens. In July, two dozen American soldiers made a daring – though ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to rescue Mr. Foley and others abducted by the Islamic State. And the question of ransom itself is changing, as groups like the IS affiliate in Algeria that beheaded tourist Herve Gourdel appear to have ideological, not pecuniary aims. No known ransom was even asked for in that case.

For families of hostages, a country’s stance can be agonizing. Henning’s brother-in-law said he was angry at the British government for appearing not to have done more for his relative. “They could have done more when they knew about it months and months ago,” Colin Livesey told the BBC. "I just don't think they did enough, in my eyes." The Foley family in the US also said that it was threatened by US officials for attempting to raise ransom for their son’s release.

Henning is said to have believed his release was imminent, but he was executed in a video distributed Friday, the day after Mr. Bolam was released. In the video the Islamic State threatened the life of another American hostage, Abdul-Rahman Kassig, known as Peter Kassig before he converted to Islam. Mr. Kassig had gone to Syria for humanitarian purposes and was captured a year ago.

His parents just released a letter he sent them: "I am obviously pretty scared to die but the hardest part is not knowing, wondering, hoping, and wondering if I should even hope at all," he wrote. "If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need."

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