In August 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) uploaded a video to YouTube that showed the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley after having demanded $132.5 million for his release. The U.S. government refused to pay or negotiate for Foley’s release, thus adhering to the 2011 U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism that aims “[to] deprive terrorists of their enabling means” by preventing and appeasing kidnapping for ransom (KFR).1 The U.S. government’s handling of Foley’s kidnapping renewed the debate surrounding this policy and prompted President Barack Obama to review this aspect of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
This counterterrorism strategy stems from American experience with terrorism starting shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, when the Barbary Pirates took advantage of the young and weak U.S. Navy. Despite increased U.S. military prowess, Americans are still kidnapped by terrorist groups. Thus, it is important to do a cost-benefit analysis of whether the 2011 counterterrorism strategy of not paying ransoms is truly in the national interest.
There are numerous perceived benefits to not paying ransoms. As mentioned above, ransom payments are considered as a financial and political “enabler” for terrorists. In 2012, U.S. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen stated, “[several terrorist organizations] have turned this age-old tactic into a successful money-generating scheme, turning kidnapping for ransom into our most significant financing threat today.” His remarks are not hollow, as Western countries paid at least $125 million in KFR payments to al-Qaida and its affiliates and approximately $44 million to ISIS alone in 2014.2 For groups such as ISIS that use KFR for fundraising, that $44 million could be used to purchase over 25,000 AK-47 assault rifles for their fighters.3 Thus, withholding ransom payments prevents groups such as ISIS, al-Qaida, and al-Qaida’s affiliates from exploiting KFR to their advantage, such as financing another terrorist attack on the homeland or improving their military armament in Iraq and Syria.
There would also be several political ramifications if the United States reversed its “no-payment strategy.” As with the U.S. experience with the Barbary Pirates, capitulation to ransom demands perpetuates a cycle of more kidnappings, seen currently with French and Spanish citizens who are often targets of KFR.4 Paying ransoms not only finances terrorism, but also leaves particular governments and their citizens at greater risk of KFR. This perceived weakness could be the motivation behind the additional kidnappings of particular nationalities, therefore creating a perpetual cycle of exploitation by extremist groups.
Further, the United States cannot begin paying ransoms without first amending its laws and sanctions regimes. According to the U.S. Code on Crimes and Criminal Procedure, it is illegal to provide material support to terrorists. In the case of ISIS, al-Qaida, and al-Qaida’s affiliates, it is illegal to pay ransoms to them because the United States designates them as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Additionally, Executive Order 13224 established financial sanctions and tasked the Department of Treasury with preventing any payments to terrorist organizations.
Paying ransoms would also violate international sanctions and commitments. In addition to their placement on the U.S. sanctions list, the above groups are also listed on the United Nations Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee list. UN member states are obligated to prevent any financial transactions to entities placed on the list. These sanctions complement two UN Security Council Resolutions that address KFR: UNSCR 1904 and UNSCR 2133. While neither resolution requires UN member states to stop ransom payments, the resolutions demonstrate political agreement that ransom payments do more harm than good. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States continues to signify the importance of international sanctions and UNSCRs by refusing to pay ransoms.5
In 2012, the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, wrote in a letter to another al-Qaida affiliate leader in North Africa that, “kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil… which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.” With comments such as al-Wuhayshi’s spreading between al-Qaida groups, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy of not paying ransoms proves to be all the more important. Additionally, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted after Foley’s killing, 62% support the U.S. government’s refusal to pay ransoms. For these reasons the U.S. policy contributes—or at least does not detract from— its larger strategy of degrading and destroying terrorist organizations.
Despite the benefits of not paying for hostages, there are several costs that raise doubts about the policy. By not paying for hostages, the U.S. government intentionally leaves the fate of American hostages to their captors. Launching a military operation can kill hostages inadvertently (e.g. Luke Somers), fail to free any hostages (e.g. James Foley), or result in the unacceptable loss of military forces. Thus, unless the United States breaks its no-ransom payment policy, the fate of Americans held hostage lie with their captors.
The willingness of terrorist organizations to release Americans is highly suspect, which calls into question whether the current U.S. policy truly deters potential captors. According to Patrick Brandt and Todd Sandler, U.S. policy is futile because other governments will pay ransoms for their citizens. Additionally, the United States did not help its case by negotiating for the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. In exchange for Bergdahl’s release, Washington freed five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay. Although Bergdahl’s release was not for money, it showed a weak area in the general U.S. counterterrorism policy of non-negotiation. Between other countries paying ransoms and apparent U.S. willingness to bend in certain situations, terrorists may not be deterred from kidnapping Americans.
If terrorist groups continue to kidnap Americans, what else do they hope to gain in lieu of a ransom payment? Since ISIS would not receive payment for its American hostages, the group used them as a means to retaliate against U.S. military actions in Iraq and Syria. ISIS acknowledged in its last email to Foley’s family that “the U.S. has not arranged the release of your people via cash transactions as other governments have accepted.” Without the option of paying ransoms, terrorist groups such as ISIS are not wholly deterred from kidnapping Americans, but instead appear to use kidnapped U.S. citizens for a different and more atrocious purpose than as a traded commodity.
Other extremist groups appear to hold Americans captive for an indefinite period of time until they receive concessions. Since Washington will not give into KFR demands, groups holding Americans resort to political ultimatums that may be unrealistic and motivated by ideological desires. For example, in 2011, al-Qaida kidnapped Warren Weinstein in Pakistan and made eight political demands for his release. Although al-Qaida backtracked and is willing to negotiate his release, they never indicated a cash payment would suffice. The same was true in Bergdahl’s release, wherein the Taliban requested a prisoner swap rather than cash. Since the United States refuses to pay for hostages, terrorist groups demand unrealistic political concessions or prisoner exchanges that can result in the perpetual detention of American hostages.
Additionally, one international aid organization no longer sends American aid workers to regions in which particular terrorist organizations operate. Refusing to pay ransoms carries many costs considering that modern terrorist organizations do not appear to be deterred and continue to kidnap Americans.
Despite the drawbacks of the no-payment policy, the benefits still outweigh the costs. By paying the ransoms, Washington would do more harm than good by financing the same groups that are expressly interested in attacking the United States. Recent episodes of KFR illustrate how terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and ISIS reap millions of dollars as a result of such activities. The deaths of Foley, Sotloff, and Kassig were truly ghastly, but refusing to pay for their release potentially saves the lives of countless others, as it denies extremist groups the financing for terrorist or insurgent attacks and disincentivizes further kidnapping.
That does not mean there is not room for improvement. The lack of international uniformity remains problematic, whether in paying for hostages or providing other concessions in lieu of cash. Even though two UNSCRs address KFR, they remain commitments without a set timeframe for implementation. One potential mechanism to apply additional political and diplomatic pressure on countries that still pay ransoms is to amend Article 3 of the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages to restrict providing concessions such as ransom payments to terrorists to “ease the situation.” Another international action to enforce uniformity would be to explicitly include ransom payments as a de jure aspect of terrorism financing.
The United States should continue to maintain special forces operations as the primary means of freeing American hostages. Even though such missions are risky and failure-prone, direct action raids remain the best option because such heavy-handed actions act as a deterrent and response mechanism by showing that the U.S. government will not concede to KFR. In order reduce the likelihood of failure, the President will need to identify weaknesses in the government’s response to KFR. The review should specifically evaluate the “hostage working group” and whether it is still effective in its current form.6 Plugging any holes in the decision-making, intelligence-sharing, and coordination of rescue missions would better serve U.S. interests, increase the survivability of American hostages, and exhibit that the United States will use the dollar amount demanded for American hostages to fund a special forces operation instead.
While videos of Americans getting beheaded are barbaric, polling data suggests that Americans support the no-payment policy and illustrates that the American public generally understands that maintaining the current policy has its merits.
1. National Strategy for Counterterrorism, June 2011 (Washington, D.C.: Office of the President of the United States, 2011). According to a report by Shane Harris, President George W. Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 12 that allows for ransom payments if it provides important intelligence about a group. However, it remains classified and Harris’ sources remain unnamed. Due to the inability to validate such claims, it will only be mentioned in this footnote. However, if true, it does represent a stark difference between the publicly acknowledged U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
2. AQIM $91.5 million from 2008 to 2013, al-Shabab $5.1 million from 2011 to 2013, and AQAP $29.9 million from 2011 to 2013. These are reported figures, so the true extent of hostage payments from Western governments is not publicly available. Additionally, this does not include figures from other hostage payments of other nationalities or local populations in the affected areas.
3. 27,397 AK-47s was calculated by dividing $44 million by $1,606 per AK-47 (the average black market price for an AK-47 in Lebanon). The Lebanese price was chosen because of Lebanon’s proximity to multiple hotspots of insurgencies in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
4. Out of 10 reported instances of negotiated deals with al-Qaida or its affiliates, 3 deals involved French nationals and 3 separate deals involved Spanish nationals. Other nationalities were part of 2 of those deals, while only French or Spanish nationals were 4 of the deals.
Aaron C. Gluck is currently a Research Assistant at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), and a first-year student specializing in International Security for Elliott School’s M.A. in International Affairs program. Prior to CNS and GWU, Aaron graduated from American University with a BA in International Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.