Ransom, publicity and talk
The change of policy on hostages announced today is a welcome one: it made no sense for the US government to be threatening their families with criminal prosecution and even less sense for the government to continue to claim that it refuses to talk with terrorists holding US citizens. The announced formation of a new interagency office to handle intelligence on hostages and improvements in how the government interacts with families are also welcome.
I can well imagine that complaints about the Obama Administration’s handling of hostage families and negotiations are justified. My own family has instructions to go public in a big way if my sometimes perilous travels put me in the hands of kidnappers. In the absence of public pressure my former colleagues at the State Department, where I served for 21 years, and the National Security Council will prefer to claim to be working quietly, and quietly forget I exist.
But we should not be sanguine about the impact of these moves on the frequency with which Americans are kidnapped and the resources available to terrorists. Allowing private parties to pay ransom increases the incentive to kidnap Americans. It will likely also result in the payment of millions to enemies who will spend the money to do more harm to other Americans.
According to the State Department only three private U.S. citizens were kidnapped in terrorism-related incidents in 2014 (one in Nigeria and two in Afghanistan). Based on news coverage, many more Europeans were captured. The New York Times reports that ransom payments bankrolled Al Qaeda to the tune of $66 million in 2013, much of it from European government sources. ISIL in the last year or two has been far more active in kidnapping than Al Qaeda ever was. Both the numbers of Americans kidnapped and the total revenue provided to our enemies will likely increase under the new policy.
The sad fact is that American willingness to allow families to pay will generate greater terrorist focus on Americans, who are presumed to have the means. That of course is untrue of many of us. Nor is the USG prepared to ante up, unlike the Italian, French and other European governments. This puts Americans in a double bind: more likely to get kidnapped than in the past and less likely to pay up relative to other nationalities. The predictable result is more kidnapped and dead Americans, not fewer, at least until the kidnappers get the nuances.
The decision to talk with terrorists, without making any real concessions to them, also provides an incentive for kidnapping, as recognition and status are often among the goals of extremist groups. But this was a policy more honored in the breach than the observance. The US government has been talking with terrorists in secret, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, for decades. It will still be necessary to evaluate case by case when talking might be productive, whether of release or delay in harm to hostages.