There are few lies that have been exposed more often and more convincingly than government assertions that they never talk to terrorists. Almost every government says that negotiations with terrorists are out of the question, but few governments actually live by this principle. Even Margaret Thatcher, a bona fide hardliner if there ever was one, lied when she said she would never enter into a dialogue with terrorists. Unbeknownst to the public at the time, in 1981 the Iron Lady ordered the MI6 to see whether the Provisional IRA was open to a negotiated settlement that would end the hunger strikes that were gaining them so much popular support.
But while all governments talk to terrorists, not all governments give in to terrorist demands. This is especially clear from the ways Western governments deal with terrorist organizations that demand ransom payments in return for the release of hostages. On the one hand, there are many European governments that are remarkably flexible in this regard. Spain, France, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Italy and Switzerland all paid ransoms to terrorist groups in recent years, often disguising their payments as development aid to conceal the fact that they are yielding to terrorist demands. The most generous payer is France, which spent – according to estimates – some $58 million on ransoms between 2008-2014, with the other countries accounting for $12 million or less. Recipients of these payments, which together amount to some $165 million, include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State. The organization that stands to gain the most from these practices is AQIM, which has managed to pocket more than $90 million by demanding ransoms for Western hostages.
The governments of the US and the UK, on the other hand, rigidly stick to a “no-payment”-policy, and have often condemned the approach taken by their continental European counterparts. It is true that the US returned five Taliban members from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan in order to secure the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, but neither of the two countries fill the coffers of terrorist organizations to free hostages. The US, rather, relies on Special Forces to carry out rescue operations, albeit with varying degrees of success. In November 2014, a US elite force managed to free a group of six Yemenis, one Saudi and one Ethiopian who were being held by AQAP, but attempts to save the American journalists James Foley, who was later beheaded by the Islamic State, and Luke Somers, who was killed by AQAP during the rescue attempt, were dismal failures.
But in spite of these operational mishaps, the US and the UK are right in not paying ransoms. The logic behind this position is as simple as it is compelling. In the words of David Cohen, a US Treasury Department official involved in US policy against terrorist financing, “Ransom payments lead to future kidnappings, and future kidnappings lead to additional ransom payments. And it all builds the capacity of terrorist organizations to conduct attacks.”
With regard to Cohen’s first point, it is interesting to note that the vast majority of people that have been taken hostage by AQIM, AQAP and Al-Shabaab were from countries that are known to pay ransoms. This suggests that terrorists are taking hostages for the simple reason that it works, and that they will quit when they realize it is no longer profitable. The encouraging effect of ransom payments also speaks from the increasingly professional way in which the abductions are carried out. In 2003, when hostage taking emerged as a tactic of Al-Qaeda- affiliated organizations, it was performed in a rather opportunistic and improvised way. Hostages were taken when the opportunity presented itself, but it was by no means a priority. Now, on the other hand, all terrorist organizations involved in hostage taking have set up elaborate infrastructures and protocols, complete with pre-determined transport routes, jail cells and ties to mass media outlets, including Al-Jazeera, to table their demands. If anything, this shows that hostage taking has become a major part of the daily operations of terrorist groups, something that never would have happened if it wasn’t a lucrative line of activity.
As for Cohen’s second point, there can be little doubt that ransom payments have indeed strengthened the recipient groups. For instance, before it discovered hostage taking (incidentally also before it adopted the Al-Qaeda brand name), AQIM was a minor group of militants, but partially as a result of the revenues gained from hostage taking, the group is now a major factor in the destabilization of the region. In the same vein, AQAP’s ability to wage a jihadist campaign depends to a considerable extent on ransom payments. In 2012, a high-ranking AQAP-leader and former associate of Osama bin Laden wrote in a letter to a fellow jihadist that ransom payments make up about half of the group’s income. Furthermore, the UN reported in November last year that the Islamic State makes about $100,000 a day in ransom payments. All this being the case, an end to the ransom payments would seriously undermine the jihadist campaigns of these three groups.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that people easily identify with individual suffering, a truth that was grasped by, of all people, Joseph Stalin. At some point during the August 1945 Potsdam Conference, where Winston Churchill, Harry Truman (FDR passed away before the conference) and Joseph Stalin decided on the shape of post-war Europe, the British Prime Minister became overwhelmed by grief over the death of a good friend’s son. Aware that this loss paled in comparison to the millions of Russians who had died, he apologized to Stalin for fretting over this relatively minor misfortune. In a strange mixture of kindness towards Churchill and complete disregard for human life, the Soviet dictator replied, “Oh no, the death of one man is always a tragedy; the death of thousands is a matter of statistics.” While it may sound unsettling coming from him, Stalin was right, and the jihadist organizations that are involved in the kidnappings know it. They understand that individual victims have a human face, which makes hostage situations relatable to the public, and they rightly speculate that this will increase the pressure on Western governments to give in to terrorist demands. Gut-wrenching as it may be, the wisest thing for governments to do would be to keep an eye on the statistics, because these show that buying out one victim strengthens and encourages terrorist organizations and thus puts many more people at risk.