Kidnapping a European brings profit; kidnapping an American brings a drone. If you were in the kidnapping business, which would you choose?
While our military and intelligence forces hunt terrorists, Europeans are some of their best customers, providing the cash flow that helps keep them in business.
The New York Times reported last week that al-Qaida and its affiliates have received at least $125 million in kidnapping revenue since 2008, much of it from European governments. These ransom payments are often designated as “humanitarian aid” and delivered through third parties, even as foreign ministers in many European countries have denied (which is to say, lied about the fact) that they have paid any sort of ransom. The Times found, however, that kidnappers today net up to $10 million per hostage. Evidence suggests that three main al-Qaida affiliates are coordinating their efforts, too.
I have written before about the importance of denying kidnappers ransoms. Not only does paying ransoms encourage further abductions, it can lead to tragically violent outcomes. The results, both of paying ransoms and refusing to do so, could not be clearer. The United Nations Security Council has even issued a resolution calling on member states to “prevent terrorists from benefiting directly or indirectly from ransom payments” and to discourage private sector organizations from paying as well.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia has dropped sharply since peaking in 2011. The International Maritime Bureau reported only 15 incidents in 2013, and overall piracy is down 40 percent from its height. Increased naval patrols and other countermeasures, including the capture and trial in Western countries of pirates, deserve a lot of the credit. But crucially, leaders of the G8 group of developed countries also agreed in June 2013 to stamp out ransom payments for hostages. Governments and shipping companies began defending their crews with force if needed, and pirates have been killed, captured, tried and imprisoned, rather than merely rewarded.
Yet despite the success on the seas off Somalia, the counter-kidnapping effort on land had clearly faltered by late last year, amid numerous indications that European countries other than Britain were still paying off kidnappers affiliated with terrorist groups. (The U.K. maintains a strict policy of not making substantive concessions to kidnappers, which has been in place since the 1970s.)
The United States and Britain continue to lead resistance to paying ransoms. Had other European countries held the line, this might have been an effective way to curtail kidnapping as a major revenue source for terrorist groups. As it is, however, the practice of paying ransoms while denying that they are doing so has ensured that European countries face ever increasing abductions of their citizen, with ever higher price tags for their return. Citizens from countries that will not pay have become collateral damage. Edwin Dyer, a Briton seized along with a German woman and a Swiss couple, was executed; the other three hostages were freed after an 8 million euro ransom arrived for the kidnappers.
For kidnappers who hope to make money, the clear answer is to try to avoid wasting time and resources on hostages whose governments won’t pay for them. Only three Americans are known to have been kidnapped by al-Qaida or its affiliates in the past five years. When American hostages are taken, our government is more likely to send a drone than a ransom payment, which probably has something to do with that figure.
It makes no sense for us to fight terrorists who are funded by ransoms paid by our NATO allies. If French or Italians or Germans don’t see this, then maybe it is time to reconsider the way we extend the military and nuclear umbrellas that kept European citizens safe and free through the Cold War. If these countries really cannot cooperate on putting kidnappers, murderers and terrorists out of business, maybe we will ultimately have no choice but to leave them to their own devices.
In the meantime, terrorists may harm the occasional American or Briton they grab by mistake, but they will presumably try not to grab them in the first place if they can avoid it. Snatching an American can bring a drone strike down on your head. Snatching an Italian, German or French citizen is likely only to bring euros.