The lack of a unified approach by world governments to paying kidnap ransoms is putting the lives of citizens of all nationalities at greater risk and providing terror groups with a big source of finance, warns a new report from British analyst group the Royal United Services Institute.
The authors call for a global, rigorously applied and scrupulously monitored commitment to prevent any concessions to terrorist organizations.
A series of high profile kidnappings by Islamic State in Syria highlighted the lack of a unified global response. Among them was American filmmaker James Foley, held for nearly two years alongside other hostages, until he was murdered in August 2014.
“There are cases where a number of individuals are taken hostage, so in the James Foley case, tragically, and other cases in West Africa, where you have mixed nationalities. And those that pay ransoms are freed earlier, multimillion-dollar ransoms that allow the terrorist groups to perpetuate their work. And those that do not pay ransoms are kept for extended periods of time until it becomes politically expedient to murder them,” explains report author Tom Keatinge of RUSI.
He adds that terrorists often will abuse hostages whose governments refuse to negotiate, in order to raise the pressure on countries that do.
France is among the countries accused of paying ransoms. In December 2014, then President Francois Hollande waited on the tarmac of a military airport outside Paris to welcome home hostage Serge Lazarevic, who had been kidnapped in Mali by al-Qaida militants. He is one of several French hostages to have been released.
Choosing ‘right to life’
While Hollande consistently denied his government paid ransoms, the evidence suggests otherwise, says Keatinge.
“There are a number of countries, Italy is another one, where hostages have come home. And the country has chosen the immediate right to life of their citizen over adhering to an internationally-agreed ban not to finance terrorist organizations.”
Ransoms are a major source of criminal financing in Colombia. Guerrilla fighters belonging to the rebel National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, have kidnapped dozens of people. In a rare interview this month, the group’s commander “Yernson” spoke about the key role that kidnapping plays.
“It’s a difficult economic situation; that’s why we have hostages. We could say, ‘No, we won’t kidnap anyone else,’ but how would we finance our struggle? How would we finance our work? We live off of the ‘ransom tax’ and kidnappings,” he told a Reuters journalist.
Specialist private sector companies, usually backed by insurance policies, are brought in to negotiate in such cases. They often secure a release for a fraction of the ransom demand, says Keatinge.
“In places like Mexico, South America, where kidnapping is almost an industry for money raising for criminal groups, that’s where these private sector companies have proven to be very effective. In the [Niger] delta in Nigeria, releasing people who have been taken hostage from oil companies, that’s another place they have been very effective.”
Currently, the ban on terrorist financing precludes the use of private sector resolutions in terrorist hostage situations. Keatinge argues reversing this policy would lower kidnappers’ ransom expectations and potentially throttle a major source of terrorist financing.