Four Myths About Ransoms

Why Governments Should Pay Up

Portraits of mountain guide Frenchman Herve Gourdel, who was kidnapped and beheaded by Algerian militants, in Saint-Martin-Vesubie, September 2014.

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

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