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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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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