France, Germany and others shell out millions to terrorists, ensuring more kidnappings and bankrolling violence.
Wall Street Journal
NOV 28, 2014
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced on Nov. 16, in another grisly video, that it had beheaded American aid worker and former U.S. Army Ranger Peter Kassig. He became the third American victim of ISIS’s beheadings, after journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Two Britons have also been beheaded, aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.
Why is ISIS only killing American and British hostages though it is believed to have seized at least 23 foreigners from 12 countries? One reason may be that ISIS bears special animus against the two Western countries most active in fighting against it. But also significant is that the U.S. and U.K. refuse to pay ransom to win the release of their nationals. By contrast, ISIS has released French, German, Peruvian, Danish and Spanish nationals, reportedly in return for hefty payments from their governments.
Is it time, then, to rethink the U.S. policy of not paying for hostages? The answer is no, though there is a stronger case for doing so than is commonly realized. “No ransom for hostages” is a sound principle but one that has often been violated. The U.S. has paid ransom for hostages, with mixed results, since the early days of the republic.
In the 1790s, President George Washington paid for the release of American sailors seized aboard ships by the “ Barbary pirates” of North Africa. One deal with Algiers in 1796 was worth more than $1 million, or one-sixth of the entire federal budget, and resulted in the release of 88 sailors. The Jefferson administration eventually waged war on the pirates but only because they failed to honor agreements and kept taking hostages. Thrifty Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin thought it would be cheaper to pay ransom than raise a costly navy.
In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt won lasting renown for supposedly standing up to the ransom demands of Moroccan bandit Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, who had kidnapped a wealthy Greek-American named Ion Perdicaris and his stepson from their home in Tangiers. Secretary of State John Hay electrified the nation with a telegram to the sultan of Morocco: “This Government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” Roosevelt sent a naval squadron steaming to Morocco.
What most people did not realize, and still don’t, is that Roosevelt was not resistant to dealing with the hostage-takers. Quite the opposite: He was threatening Morocco with armed force if it failed to negotiate Perdicaris’s release. The sultan got the message and paid $70,000 to get Perdicaris back.
The American tradition of making concessions to kidnappers did not end there. In 1968 Lyndon Johnson ’s administration, in order to win the release of 82 sailors seized by North Korea aboard the U.S.S. Pueblo, apologized in writing for that intelligence ship’s spy mission off the Korean coast and promised never to spy again. In 1981, in return for the release of 52 hostages from the U.S. Embassy held by Iran, Jimmy Carter ’s administration agreed to unfreeze millions of dollars in Iranian assets.
Even more notoriously, the Reagan administration sold Iran thousands of TOW antitank missiles and other munitions to win the release of U.S. hostages seized in Lebanon. The payoffs worked—kind of: Three hostages were released but three new ones were seized. The Iran-Contra affair blew up in the administration’s face when it was revealed that part of the arms-sale proceeds was used to finance the contras fighting the pro-Soviet regime in Nicaragua.
More recently, despite President Obama ’s unwillingness to ransom ISIS hostages, he released five high-level Taliban detainees in return for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan. In the context of ISIS hostage-taking, one can understand the emotional appeal of getting innocent victims out alive—of sparing them torture, imprisonment and a horrible beheading.
So if emotion and history argue for ransoming hostages, why shouldn’t the U.S. do so? Because such a policy is self-defeating: The more ransom you pay, the more inducement you create for hostages to be seized.
That has proved true whether the hostage-takers were the Barbary pirates of the 1790s or Islamic State and other jihadists today. There is, in fact, circumstantial evidence that jihadists are more likely to seize the nationals of countries that are known for generous ransom payments rather than Britons or Americans. France had more hostages held around the world than any other country last year, according to the IntelCenter terrorist-monitoring group.
It is regrettable, indeed infuriating, that so many U.S. allies pay ransom, which encourages more hostage-taking and more terrorism in general. The New York Times estimates that al Qaeda and its various affiliates earned more than $125 million from hostage-taking between 2008 and 2014. That makes kidnapping a major—perhaps the major—revenue stream for many of these groups. Paying ransom subsidizes violent extremists to make war on the rest of us. France, Germany, Spain and other ransom-payers have much to answer for.
It can make sense to talk with kidnappers to see if their victims might be released without major concessions—as apparently occurred with two Americans set free by North Korea this month after a visit from U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. The U.S. should also make every effort to rescue hostages, as Special Operations Forces did in the case of Richard Phillips, the American merchant skipper seized by Somali pirates in 2009—and tried but failed to do with a raid on an ISIS camp in Syria this summer. The state cannot abandon its citizens.
But, hard as it may be emotionally, presidents need to resist the lure of paying for hostages, whether in money or in kind, because of the overriding duty to protect greater numbers of lives. There is no better guide in such matters than the immortal words of Rep. Robert Goodloe Harper, who in 1798 objected to the French foreign minister’s demands for payments to protect U.S. ships from being seized on the high seas, declaring: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”