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Out of Line: The UK and US Response to Kidnap-For-Ransom

Tom Keatinge
Commentary, 6 July 2015
Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, Organised Crime, Terrorism, United States, Americas, Iraq, Syria, UK, Terrorism, Europe, Middle East and North Africa
Until last week, the UK government’s position on terrorist-related kidnap-for-ransom (KfR) mirrored that of the United States: no payments and no concessions. But the result of a six month White House review of US hostage response has created a dilemma for the prime minister.

Throughout his first term as prime minister, David Cameron returned repeatedly to the issue of ransom payments made to designated terrorist groups and the actions of some fellow European nations. The coalition government’s revised CONTEST strategy published in 2011 committed ‘to seek to prevent ransom payments to al-Qaeda and its affiliates, including by working with international partners to demonstrate the consequences of ransom payments.’ The prime minister reiterated his position at the London-hosted Somalia conference in early 2012. Payment of ransoms was a key item at the Lough Erne G8 summit in 2013, the communique from which noted that the ‘international community has made significant progress in combating the flow of funds to terrorist organisations’ but also drew attention to the substantial financial benefit being earned by terrorist groups from KfR and the incentive this provided for further kidnappings. In September 2014 he again returned to the issue, reminding NATO leaders of their commitment not to pay ransoms.

One leader he had not been addressing was President Obama. Until last week, the policy of the United States towards hostage-taking by designated terrorist organisations was, like that of the UK, clear. The safe release of hostages was to be achieved without ransom payments or political concessions for, in the view of the US, ‘hostage-takers looking for ransoms distinguish between those governments that pay ransoms and those that do not and…make a point of not taking hostages from those countries that refuse to make concessions.’ Yet last week, President Obama announced Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-30 – Hostage Recovery Activities, introducing ambiguity into this previously strongly articulated belief.

Compounding the Pain

Since August 2014, a number of US citizens have died at the hands of their captors. First the murder of James Foley was broadcast by Daesh (otherwise knows as ISIS, or Islamic State), then that of fellow journalist Steve Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig. Kayla Mueller also died in Islamic State captivity. In Yemen, journalist Luke Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie were killed by Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during a US military rescue attempt and in January this year aid worker Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto were inadvertently killed by a US drone strike.

The death of a family member in this fashion is unimaginable, yet the US government succeeded in compounding the pain via a management process characterised by poor communication with the families and poor coordination between those agencies responsible for responding to such crises. Announcing PPD-30, President Obama acknowledged the extent to which the US government had let down these families, noting their frequent frustrations in dealing with their own government, the confusion and conflicting information about what the government is prepared to do to help, and even that in some cases, families felt that they’d been threatened for exploring certain options to bring their loved ones home.

PPD-30 announced a range of measures aimed at addressing these shortcomings in coordination and communication that were broadly welcomed, but the clarification of the position of the US Government on the payment of ransoms drew considerable comment. Reiterating that the US would not make concessions, the President did however open the door to payment of ransoms by families, observing that ‘no family of an American hostage has ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom for the return of their loved ones.’  He also drew attention to the role that third parties can play in communicating with hostage-takers.

A Precious Treasure

Not all agreed with this presidential nuance. House Speaker John Boehner expressed concern that the President could be endangering Americans and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte echoed the previous, unambiguous US line accusing the President of doing ‘more harm than good’ and emboldening and incentivising violent extremists ‘to capture and hold more Americans hostage for ransom.’ 

One other individual who is perhaps left wondering about the implications of President Obama’s statement is David Cameron. Like President Obama, he too has witnessed the murder of British citizens Alan Henning and David Haines at the hands of Daesh. Yet the prime minister has staked much on his strong opposition to the payment of ransoms, speaking out regularly against those nations that favour the swift and safe return of their citizens via the payment of ransoms over the risk that such payments finance terrorists and perpetuate the scourge of hostage-taking.

The value terrorist groups place on kidnapping as a form of funding is considerable. Nasser Al-Wuhayshi, former leader of Yemen-based AQAP that is estimated to have earned US$20 million from kidnap-for-ransom in 2011-2013, called the kidnapping of hostages ‘an easy spoil…a profitable trade and a precious treasure.’ And in several recorded messages, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has called for supporters worldwide to kidnap Westerners. ISIS is estimated to have raised up to US$45 million in 2014.

The prime minister and home secretary also used the recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Act to clarify the position of third parties, specifically insurance companies, in terrorist-related KfR situations ‘to make sure UK-based insurance firms do not provide cover for the payment of terrorist ransoms.’ Whilst President Obama made no suggestion that insurance companies should consider reimbursing payments, he did include ‘third parties’ who help families amongst those cleared to communicate with hostage-takers.

In announcing PPD-30, President Obama is attempting the impossible task of balancing two uncomfortable truths: paying ransoms may encourage further kidnapping and when it involves designated terrorist groups it is against international law. But paying ransoms may increase the likelihood that hostages return home alive: something that any family would wish to do. YouGov research starkly reveals this conflict with a majority of those polled in the UK strongly opposing the payment of ransoms but with a majority also saying they would pay to free a relative.

A study by The New York Times of 23 hostages held in Syria revealed that those from countries that were willing to pay ransoms have been freed and returned home alive. Those from countries that were not, have died. Following President Obama’s statement last week, the prime minister’s position, when next faced with this equation, looks increasingly lonely.


Tom Keatinge
Director, Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, RUSI

Tom Keatinge is the Director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at RUSI, where his research focuses on matters at... read more

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