Ransoms: The Real Cost

James Foley.jpg
Aris Messinis/Getty Images
American freelance reporter James Foley (left) in Sirte, Libya, September 29, 2011

The Obama Administration’s announcement on Tuesday that it is reviewing its hostage policy has brought fresh attention to what Simon Critchley, in this space last week, called “The Case for Paying Ransoms.” Critchley’s post followed a month-long hiatus in the Islamic State’s broadcast of a series of beheadings of British and US journalists and aid workers. That lull ended on Sunday with a video announcing the execution of another American, Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig, whose severed head was used to adorn a scene of mass execution of Syrian soldiers. Now, the US government appears to be under new pressure for its approach of, as Critchley describes it, “refusing negotiation at all costs.” But the deaths of Kassig and his British and American cellmates should compel us to precisely the opposite conclusion: that ransoms are a terrible idea, and that by contemplating paying them we are risking a kidnapping pandemic.

No one can watch these snuff films without disgust, and natural human sympathy—particularly for the lone American aid worker still in ISIS captivity—sharpens the sense that we should try to prevent the next execution by any means necessary, including payment. At the level of policy, however, we should consider the long-term effects of ransom payments, and whether they will endanger others while severely limiting the ability of journalists and aid workers to do their work. They most certainly will.

There is, first of all, the matter of price. The sums demanded—and usually paid—have become so large that even a group without a principled reason to hate America or its European allies might be tempted to abduct a citizen from one of those countries. We know the Europeans have paid, mostly because we see European journalists come home. The New York Times estimates that $125 million has been surrendered to al-Qaeda, mostly its Maghrebi franchise, for the release of European hostages since 2008. And we know that a dozen or so Europeans who had been held with the executed British and Americans were released for ransom. Meanwhile, the price per hostage has skyrocketed. Ten years ago, a Frenchman’s life might cost a few hundred thousand dollars; now it costs millions. (The Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi estimates that recent payments to ISIS for European captives have averaged approximately $2.5 million per hostage.)

Americans claim not to pay ransoms, but in truth, an American can fetch a similar or even greater sum. A report by Unity Resources Group, a security firm, claims that an American journalist was freed in Syria after payment of a $25 million ransom. Phil Balboni, CEO of GlobalPost, the news organization James Foley wrote for, worked tirelessly to coordinate the release of Foley, and he admitted after Foley’s beheading that private backers were prepared to pay around $5 million, but not the exorbitant sum of $132 million Foley’s captors apparently demanded. Moreover, such price information travels fast: Arabic media put the $5 million figure offered by Balboni right at the top of their articles. All of Iraq instantly knew the size of the payoff that might be expected for snatching, say, an American correspondent in Baghdad.

Second, but related, is how foreign reporters themselves regard ransoms. Many journalists I know who cover combat zones privately express great unease with having specific, multi-million-dollar figures attached to their names, and view the justification for making huge payments to release hostages as incoherent. However, they are reluctant to openly criticize the practice, in part because they are aware they might want to make exceptions for friends and colleagues. And they would—and I would—want to be exceptions, too, should our times come. But we should not make policy based on the will of the least objective parties. Many of my moral commitments might change, for bad and unprincipled reasons, if they affected me personally. Kill my family, and I might suddenly favor the death penalty. Snatch my colleague, and my wallet opens, even if I know it’s the wrong thing to do.

As an unkidnapped journalist with no living colleagues I know of in captivity, I can say that making huge payments to terrorist groups, as Western governments have done in recent years, has been disastrous. One of the least pleasurable aspects of war reporting is having to go into situations that you can’t control—the taxi to meet a source is often a ride toward an uncertain fate. No matter what precautions you take, eventually you must expose yourself to the risk that someone will intercept you and intend you harm. Not long ago, one’s potential kidnappers or killers were limited to ideologues who might hate on the basis of nationality, religious background, or, less commonly, previous reporting. Now everyone knows that a Western journalist—even an American one—could be worth millions of dollars, a universally motivating sum.

The areas we now must consider risky extend far beyond Syria. Of course, many of the places with kidnapping threats (Mexico, Libya, Pakistan) were dangerous long before the current high-profile kidnappings, and most contain people who require no monetary incentive to kill and kidnap Americans. But the zone of danger already feels like it has expanded, with far-reaching consequences. Syria has become a virtual wasteland for journalism, with effectively zero reporters there anymore. No news organization wants to risk having to set up a crisis-management center for a kidnapped staffer or freelancer. Many other regions of conflict could go dark as well.

Simon Critchley proposes that the moral dilemma forced by ISIS’s hostage-taking comes down to this: gird ourselves for beheading and staunchly refuse to pay, or pay up but lie about it, publicly denying that money has changed hands. The better choice, according to Critchley, is to pay, on the grounds that it has led to happy outcomes for abducted European journalists (though not, perhaps, for European journalists who might be abducted in the future, at an even higher price). But the two most obvious arguments for paying ransoms—that it’s worth the money and that it brings journalists back alive—both betray remarkably short-term thinking.

Critchley compares the price ISIS reportedly demanded for Foley, $132 million, to the amount spent on the contract of a soccer player, and leaves open the possibility that we should pay larger sums if requested. This is, in effect, to decline to state an upper bound on the amount we should be prepared to pay for a life. And payments of this magnitude would signal that American hostages are as valuable as oil fields—in addition to providing the pleasure a militant group might take in observing the groveling of Americans and their loved ones.

As for the life-saving argument, no one can deny that Americans and Brits are dead, and the Europeans alive. Some even characterize the efforts of the European governments as a triumph for press freedom. But those arguing for the payment of ransoms tend to underestimate the effect such payments have upon the ISIS balance sheet. By most estimates, ISIS earns $1 million to $2 million per day from the black-market oil trade, its main revenue source. The tens of millions that were paid for the release of European hostages amount to a comfortable month worth of revenue for ISIS; had even a fraction of the extravagant ransom apparently demanded for Foley been paid, this revenue could have sustained ISIS for twice that period.

There is no doubt that the current state of ransom policies, internationally, is a horrible mess. As Taliban kidnap victim David Rohde points out, we currently have a mélange of policies that serves ISIS’s needs rather than our own. They can trade Frenchmen and Italians for cash, and save the Americans and Brits for gore. Duplicity about ransom payments makes it difficult to achieve a uniform response, and allows ISIS to relish the public’s terrorized uncertainty about whether a victim will or won’t make it out. That uncertainty, and our rapt attention as we await the outcomes, allow ISIS to rip off the scab afresh with each new video, and leaves us psychologically enslaved by their media department.

This does not mean we have to join European governments in condoning payments to terrorist groups. With Critchley I concur on two things: hypocrisy is at worst a venial sin, and European and US policies should be harmonized. But I would urge harmony under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1904 (2009), which forbids payment of any sort, and which European countries flout. (Some European governments have their own anti-ransom laws that they simply ignore; Italy can even theoretically freeze the bank accounts of victims’ families, to prevent payment.) Countries should agree that ransom payments to terrorists are, as a matter of policy, to be discouraged and, in a limited way, perhaps even prosecuted. The Obama administration’s review of hostage policy provides an opportunity to do just this.

The “material support for terrorism” sections of the 2001 Patriot Act are both broad and extraterritorial: no matter where the crime of paying ISIS was committed or who committed it, American courts have jurisdiction if the accused person subsequently comes to US soil or is brought here. To date, no one has been prosecuted for supporting terrorists in an effort to save the innocent life of a kidnapping victim. Instead, as the experience of the Foley family has made clear, the government has used these policies to bully the families of hostages, which is unfortunate. In reality, prosecutors evince little appetite for going after families, and rightly so: they are suffering enough, and prosecuting them—or even threatening to do so—is neither compassionate nor useful. Targeting the foreign government officials, banks, brokers, and dispassionate intermediaries who have a hand in keeping the cash-for-hostages racket going might be a different story.

None of these people will ever see jail-time—prosecutors are also loath to try foreigners acting in good faith on orders from friendly governments—but the difference between the US position and its dangerously misguided opposite would at least be made starker by pointing out that our laws criminalize every aspect of payment to ISIS, by anyone, anywhere. (One prosecutor told me that the most we might see is a material support charge tacked on to a list of other crimes, in prosecuting a foreign bank that had managed such a transaction in addition to other misbehavior.) Individuals involved in this sad business might have to remember, à la Henry Kissinger, that overseas travel carries a slight risk of legal jeopardy. And many unkidnapped journalists, myself included, would be pleased to know that the US government is using vigorous hypocrisy to serve the right side of this argument.