The Price of Freedom

When Governments Pay Ransoms

People release balloons into the air in front of the Eiffel Tower to support four French journalists who were being held hostage
People release balloons into the air in front of the Eiffel Tower to support four French journalists who were being held hostage in Syria, December 6, 2013. (Jacky Naegelen / Courtesy Reuters)

Since September 11, 2001, an immense global network of laws, task forces, and regulatory bodies has mobilized to prevent terrorists from raising, storing, and moving funds. Just one month after the attacks, the Financial Action Task Force, an international body created to combat money laundering, issued a new set of guidelines that required all signatories to criminalize terrorist financing, freeze terrorist assets, and report suspicious transactions. In the intervening years, weeding out illicit financing has become its own field: Banks have spent billions of dollars installing monitoring systems and increasing staff, governments have created new departments, and countries are regularly checked for compliance with an ever-growing list of counterterrorism standards and norms. 

For individuals and institutions that are caught financing terrorism, sanctions are swift and unforgiving. In the United States, for example, offenders are classified as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists,” a category created two weeks after September 11. The U.S. government is allowed to freeze the assets of -- and prohibit transfers of funds, goods, or services to -- any person or group in this category. Challenging these sanctions is all but impossible; in the Kafkaesque world of classified information and closed-door decision-making, appeals take years.    

Despite all this, one form of terrorist financing, arguably the most profitable, has evaded the global counterterrorism effort: kidnapping for ransom. A recent New York Times investigation found that al Qaeda and its affiliates have made at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008; the United States Treasury Department puts that number at $165 million. And according to the Times investigation, many of these ransom payments appear to be funded by European governments -- the same governments that are party to the global counterterrorism standards that prohibit terrorist financing. The impact of these payments cannot be understated and should not be ignored: According to the Times, al Qaeda now finances the bulk of its operations through ransom money that European governments pay to free their citizens.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis