They wanted $132 million. A sum that great was beyond anyone’s comprehension. Phil Balboni, chief executive officer of GlobalPost, the outfit Foley freelanced for, thought maybe they had a shot at $5 million. But $132 million? It was ludicrous.
“We never took the 100 million seriously,” Balboni told the Boston Globe. “It was such an incredible sum.” Administration officials were also doubtful about the demand. “The truth is, there was never a credible ransom offer on the table,” an official told the Globe. “Extremists made propaganda demands for hundreds of millions of dollars. The truth is, every real option was exhausted.”
Now more than a year later, the same tragic pattern is unfolding once more as Japanese officials consider what is likely another “propaganda demand for hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Early Tuesday morning, the Islamic State released a video showing a familiar black-clad figure, who appeared to be Jihadi John, looming over two kneeling Japanese men. He wanted $200 million — $100 million for each — or come Friday, 72 hours later, the two would be killed.
The news hit Japan, rarely drawn into Middle East conflicts, like an anvil. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said this week he’ll do everything possible to save hostages Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa. But he never said he’ll pay the ransom, an act that would likely anger countries such as the United States, which forbids trading cash for hostages. Then there’s the very real possibility, experts said, that the Islamic State made the demand with full knowledge that it won’t be met.
“The Islamic State has specialized in manufacturing attention-grabbing international crises,” Joshua M. Landis of the Center for Middle East Studies, told the Japan Times. “Why not ratchet up the price and shorten the time? Makes for great drama. Will Japan pay? Does it care about its citizens? Can ISIS get its money? Or, is it totally unrealistic? These are the questions on everyone’s mind.” If Japan doesn’t pay, he told the newspaper to “count on” a pair of executions soon. “The Islamic State is not filled with softies.”
A Tokyo-based defense analyst said the astronomical demand was, in fact, very shrewd and calculating. “They win either way,” James Simpson said. “Either Japan pays up and ISIS hits the jackpot, or they kill the hostages and spread their message of fear and terror to a new target.”
For Islamist militant groups from Nigeria’s Boko Haram to Somalia’s al-Shabab, hostages present lucrative opportunities that, despite their potential payouts, are nonetheless subject to the whims of market forces. Sometimes, a group will make a demand, but then accept a substantially lower figure, realizing the original request wasn’t feasible. Such was the case when al-Shabab kidnapped two Western hostages in 2008. The captors made their demand of $3 million almost immediately, but years later accepted less than $1 million when it became clear that was all the families had.
Put bluntly, the kidnappers from the beginning wanted one thing — money — and were willing to take however much they could get. These are easy scores and a key component of many terrorist groups’ fundraising apparatus. “Most of [our] battle costs, if not all, were paid for through the spoils,” Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, wrote in 2013, placing his organization’s annual expenditures at $20 million. “Almost half the spoils came from hostages. Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and precious treasure.”
In all, the New York Times discovered in an investigation last year, Europeans have paid out at least $125 million since 2008 to al-Qaeda and its affiliates for kidnapped citizens. “Kidnapping for ransom has become today’s most significant source of terrorist financing,” David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism, said in a 2012 speech. “Each transaction encourages another transaction.”
But the Islamic State isn’t like other terrorist organizations. Its sources of revenue are diverse and highly profitable. “They’re probably the richest jihadi organization ever seen,” Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Financial Times. “They get their money from trafficking weapons, kidnappings for ransom, counterfeit currencies, oil refining, smuggling artifacts that are thousands of years old and from taxes that they have for areas they are in — either on businesses, or at checkpoints or on ordinary people.”
In other words, the Islamic State isn’t as reliant on hostages for revenue as other terrorist groups. It can afford to execute incredibly lucrative assets — what Wuhayshi called “precious treasure” — and move on to the next. It can afford to instill terror by making outlandish claims that it knows full well won’t be met. And it can afford to suddenly message the wife of one hostage with one such request.
On a December day, according to the Japan Times, the wife of Kenji Goto Jogo looked down at her phone to find a horrifying message. It was the Islamic State. It had her husband. And it wanted 2 billion yen — $17 million. A huge figure, to be sure.
But, as she would soon learn, it would only go much higher from there.