How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The brutal executions last year of five British and American hostages by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, alongside reports that ISIS has raised some $45 million through ransom payments, have put the West’s hostage management policies under intense scrutiny. The debate has centered around the usefulness of the “no concessions” policy, under which governments refuse to pay ransoms, release prisoners, pull out troops, or otherwise alter government policy to secure the release of hostages. But there is no debate: the policy is wrong-headed. In endorsing it, proponents have spread a variety of misconceptions about its purpose and efficacy—many of which have yet to be dismantled.
The first misconception is that governments that follow a strict “no concessions” policy do not negotiate with terrorists. But among governments that adhere to the policy, enforcement varies widely. Although most Western governments refuse to pay ransoms at the governmental level, many—such as those of Denmark and the Netherlands—will not stop victims’ families, employers, or other benefactors from doing so in their stead. Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom are more unforgiving. A senior U.S. official reportedly told the family of James Foley, the first American citizen ISIS beheaded, that they would be prosecuted if they paid a ransom on their own. The British home secretary recently banned U.K.-based insurance companies from reimbursing ransom payments made to terrorists. For most other countries, however, the flexibility of the “no concessions” policy varies case by case.
A second misconception has to do with the efficacy of the policy. Governments such as that of the United States argue that not paying ransoms makes their citizens less attractive targets for terrorist organizations such as ISIS. But no matter how logical this assumption may sound, there is no evidence that terrorists choose hostages based on a given government’s ransom policy. Nor is there evidence that citizens of countries that are widely known to pay ransoms are targeted any more frequently than citizens of countries that do not. In conflict zones, hostages are typically chosen based on how Western they look and how easy they are to capture. Only later are their fates determined, in a long process during which hostages are typically passed among different groups as part of internal negotiations. For the 17 hostages held by ISIS in Syria, for example, no ransom demands were made until at least November 2013, many months after their initial capture.
In addition, most terrorist groups take hostages not primarily to make money, but as a tool of political intimidation and extremist propaganda. In the vast majority of terrorist kidnappings, the initial demands are typically political, such as the release of high-profile al Qaeda members from Guantánamo Bay or the withdrawal of troops from Iraq or Afghanistan. Ransom payments are usually demanded later as a “Plan B.” And even when money is on the table, it does not always appear to be the main motivation. In the case of Foley, for example, ISIS did not seem that interested in the ransom payment. The kidnappers reportedly asked for 100 million euros ($118 million), which so far exceeded the 2 million euros ($2.4 million) they had allegedly received for their other hostages that they could not have expected the United States to pay it. With an overall budget of $2 billion, not to mention a daily income of $3 million from oil sales alone, ISIS did not need the money anyway. In the end, Foley had greater value to them as a murder victim in a propaganda video. This was also the case for French hiker Hervé Gourdel, whom ISIS kidnapped and beheaded in Algeria in September. Had money been the objective, the kidnappers could have struck gold, as the French government is widely rumored to pay ransoms. For the kidnappers, however, Gourdel appeared to have greater worth as a symbol: a victim in a widely distributed video that denounced the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS.
In cases where money is the main motivator, terrorist groups would have to believe that governments are truly committed to enforcing a “no concessions” policy for it to have a real deterrent effect. But governments appear to be more lenient than they will admit. A 2014 New York Times investigation found that although most European governments officially deny paying ransoms, they have bankrolled al Qaeda and its direct affiliates under the table, helping them to at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008. Terrorists may suspect that the United States is similarly flexible. For example, jihadists often cite the U.S. government’s decision to secure the release of U.S. prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Guantánamo Bay detainees as proof that the United States is willing to grant concessions given the right circumstance.
A third misconception is that paying ransoms to terrorists strengthens and encourages them. But not all such payments incentivize future kidnappings or bolster terrorists’ operational capabilities. Of course, multimillion-dollar payments likely will. But smaller payments—designed to offset the costs of acquiring and guarding the hostages, allowing terrorist groups to save face—can sometimes provide enough of an incentive for safe release. In some cases, ransom payments may even undermine terrorist groups, damaging their recruitment capabilities by making them seem superficial and motivated purely by money. Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist separatist group in the Philippines, for example, lost popular support in the early 2000s after receiving an influx of cash through a series of ransom payments. As a result, the group transformed from an al Qaeda–linked terrorist organization into merely a criminal gang—still a threat, to be sure, but a significantly less influential one.
A final misconception—and perhaps the most pernicious one—is that a “no concessions” policy leaves open other options for the safe return of hostages. But most other options are not viable. One—the mounting of a rescue operation—is actually the leading cause of death among hostages. For every miraculous rescue, such as that of U.S. citizen Jessica Buchanan, whom U.S. Navy SEALs successfully rescued from a compound in Somalia, there are dozens of failed attempts. And given the risks and logistical challenges of such operations, they are rarely attempted unless the hostage is judged to be in imminent danger. Aside from hoping to be rescued, hostages can also try to escape themselves. Some escape attempts have been successful, such as that of New York Times reporter David Rohde, but most fail. Even if hostages successfully escape their captors, they find themselves in places such as Mogadishu, Miranshah, or Raqqa, where the likelihood of death or recapture runs high. A final option is to wait for a stroke of luck, such as a purely humanitarian release. But luck has no place in sensible government policy.
In addition, a rigid “no concessions” policy has a damaging collateral effect. When journalists, medical staff, and nongovernmental organization personnel realize that their options for a safe return home are so limited, they may decide simply not to work in conflict areas. Although this would likely decrease the number of kidnappings overall, it might also lead to far fewer humanitarian efforts on the ground, crippling the “hearts and mind” strategy that is so central to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts.
Put simply, a strict “no concessions” policy limits options for the safe return of hostages without delivering on any of its promises. In contrast, flexible and skillfully managed behind-the-scenes negotiations can save lives in the short term—and the long.