Foley captors' ransom demand revives debate over US no-pay policy

Islamic State militants had demanded millions of dollars for James Foley's release. While the US government refuses to pay ransoms to kidnappers, some European governments have done so in the past, enriching Al Qaeda and its affiliates.  

Manu Brabo/freejamesfoley.org/AP/File
A photo posted on the website freejamesfoley.org shows journalist James Foley in Aleppo, Syria, in September 2012.

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The militant Islamist group that murdered freelance journalist James Foley had demanded a ransom from the US government before his beheading.

But the US has a strict policy of not paying ransoms to terrorist groups, putting it at odds with several European countries who have paid in the past to free hostages. Mr. Foley's death has revived the debate over the policy. The New York Times reported recently that ransoms have bankrolled Al Qaeda operations worldwide.

According to The New York Times, the self-declared Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) demanded a $100 million ransom for Mr. Foley, which the US refused to pay. (The Wall Street Journal cited a demand of 100 million euros.) IS has made a similar demand for Steven Sotloff, another American freelance journalist being held. The US attempted to rescue hostages in Syria in a special forces operation earlier this summer, but failed to do so. 

Trading captives for payouts has become a routine way for militant groups to raise revenue, netting them at least $125 million in the last five years. “Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure," wrote Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The US refusal to pay may discourage the kidnapping of Americans, but it also makes it less likely that they would survive captivity.

While government and counterterrorism officials insist that paying ransoms only perpetuates the problem, the policy has meant that captured Americans have little chance of being released. A handful succeeded in running away, and even fewer were rescued in special operations. The rest are either held indefinitely — or else killed.

David Rohde, an American journalist who has been kidnapped twice, once by Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and once by the Taliban in 2008, writes in The Atlantic that the lack of a unified policy between the US and Europe has endangered civilians' lives:

But Foley’s execution is also a chilling wake-up call for American and European policymakers, as well as U.S. news outlets and aid organizations. It is the clearest evidence yet of how vastly different responses to kidnappings by U.S. and European governments save European hostages but can doom the Americans. 

...

There are no easy answers in kidnapping cases. The United States cannot allow terrorist groups to control its foreign policy. One clear lesson that has emerged in recent years, however, is that security threats are more effectively countered by united American and European action. The divergent US and European approach to abductions fails to deter captors or consistently safeguard victims.

The effect of the divergent policies has become pernicious. In 2000, the average ransom paid to settle kidnappings was $200,000; it has since spiked to millions of dollars per captive. And one aid organization now chooses Europeans from countries whose government does pay, rather than Americans, when sending aid workers to high-risk areas. 

Foreign Policy writer James Traub explains why the underlying question is not as simple as "is this person worth several million dollars?"

Should states pay ransom to kidnappers? If you are a friend or loved one of the victim, the answer is obviously yes. But even a more remote observer could cite the moral argument that the obligation to treat people as ends rather than means -- what Kant calls the "categorical imperative" -- forbids one to place the life of the abductee in a balance with abstract goods, like "sending a message" that kidnapping doesn't pay. In any case, the consequences of capitulation are remote and hypothetical; the life is terribly real. Israel, the most hard-nosed of democracies, has been prepared to pay a terrible price to retrieve its captured soldiers; in 2011, the state handed over 1027 prisoners, a quarter of them serving life terms, in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Israelis understand that by doing so they may encourage further kidnapping, and thus further endanger their own security; it is a price they are prepared to pay.

Journalists are not soldiers, and Americans are not Israelis. And U.S. presidents are clearly not moral philosophers. The president has an obligation to consider the consequences of his decisions, and act accordingly. The consequences of capitulating to terrorist kidnappers are ruinous. 

IS or other militants in Syria are believed to be holding several other journalists, including freelancer Austin Tice, held since August 2012.

Without the option of paying a ransom, families and news organizations have limited choices: Stay quiet and hope for a release or escape; Drum up publicity in order to put pressure on the group; or hope for a rescue by the US government.

In a November 2012 story about the Tice family's efforts to bring their son home, a security contractor told the Monitor, "The right situation on going public depends on why that person was abducted in the first place. Money? Politics? Islamic fundamentalism? Kidnap for ransom?"

"We don't know with any certainty where he is or who has him," said father Marc Tice at the time. "We could speculate ourselves crazy." The family wrote on the anniversary of his disappearance a few days ago that they have heard nothing of his whereabouts since then.

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