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The logic of not paying ransoms

This November 2012 photo, posted on the Web site, shows James Foley while he was covering the civil war in  Syria. (Nicole Tung/ via Associated Press)

The U.S. government certainly tried to save James Foley before he was executed by Islamic State extremists. Sources have told The Washington Post that a secret raid was conducted in a bid to save the American journalist and others. It failed because the hostages were not at that location at that moment.

However, there may have been one big tactic they didn't try: paying a ransom. David Rohde, a well-respected journalist who works at the Atlantic and the Reuters news agency, touched upon this Wednesday, when he wondered whether U.S. foreign policy had failed Foley with its refusal to negotiate with his captors. Rohde points out that journalists of other nationalities were apparently released after their governments paid large sums to the Islamic State, something the U.S. government refuses to do (though private individuals and entities may).

Rohde knows first-hand what he is talking about. As a reporter working in Afghanistan in 2008, he was captured by the Taliban and held for seven months. No ransom was paid, but he eventually managed to escape. His argument is bolstered by reports from the Associated Press that the Islamic State asked the Foley family for $132 million in exchange for Foley.

It wasn't about figures. $100 million is a lot of money, but a life is priceless. And while the United States generally refuses to negotiate with kidnappers, there are times when it appears to do so, as shown by the recent exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders. U.S. officials maintain there is a distinction between winning the release of a captive soldier and paying ransom for a civilian. The core argument for governments not paying ransoms is specific: It removes a key motive for kidnapping foreign nationals in the first place and stops terrorist or criminal groups from getting huge sums of money.

Speaking at London-based Chatham House in 2012, David Cohen, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, explained the U.S. logic on kidnappings and ransoms. "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," Cohen said. "We must find a way to break the cycle. Refusing to pay ransoms or to make other concessions to terrorists is, clearly, the surest way to break the cycle, because if kidnappers consistently fail to get what they want, they will have a strong incentive to stop taking hostages in the first place."

Officially, most governments subscribe to this theory. But while the United States and Britain appear to be consistent in their refusal to pay ransoms, many other nations seem to find loopholes. “While France claims that it does not pay ransoms directly, it seems that the money is funneled through to the employer of the hostage, who is then responsible for the payment," Martin Michelot, program and research officer at the German Marshall Fund's Paris office, explains. "This keeps the facade alive.”

According to a recent New York Times investigation, France has funneled $58 million in ransom payments since 2008, the most of any country. It was followed by Switzerland at $12.4 million and Spain at $5.9 million, the Times found. There may be repercussions for these countries — last year, there were more French hostages around the world than any other nationality, though this may also be a result of French intervention overseas in places such as Mali and Libya (At least one French hostage was held with Foley, incidentally).

In countries that may pay ransoms, there appear to be mixed feelings about the practice: Last year French President François Hollande told families of hostages being held in Africa's Sahel region that no more ransoms would be paid, though a few months later there were reports in French media of more money paid out. Germany also has questioned its own payments to terrorists. "We need to ask ourselves whether or not we can live with the fact that the money we are paying in ransom for hostages," a German government security expert said in a 2007 newspaper interview"could be used to buy weapons that could kill our soldiers in Afghanistan."

Countries where hostages are taken have sometimes complained about ransoms, too. "Yemen constantly rejects handling the release of kidnapped hostages through the payment of ransoms to kidnappers," Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, said in an interview with Saudi Arabia's Asharq al-Aswat newspaper last year. "We do not want this conduct to expose many foreigners in Yemen to abduction as other kidnappers would seek to receive a ransom," Qirbi explained.

So why pay ransoms at all? The horror of Foley's death is why. Few politicians want to explain to a family that they could have saved a hostage but didn't. The political fallout also could be huge.

Conversely, Foley's death shows that the logic to refusing ransoms doesn't always work. An American citizen was taken hostage and held captive for almost two years, even though the United States is well known for its refusal to pay. And if the reports of a $132 million ransom demand are true, it would suggest that the Islamic State didn't really expect it to be paid: The number is so absurdly high that private third parties or insurance groups that cover kidnappings would have struggled to pay it. It seems that even without a ransom, an American hostage is valuable.

Rick Noack contributed to this post.

Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously said that the United States and Britain appear to be inconsistent in their policy against paying ransom to terrorist groups. The post has been corrected.