Asmaa Waguih / Courtesy Reuters Families of 27 Egyptian Coptic Christians workers kidnapped in Libya hold pictures of their kidnapped relatives in Cairo, January 19, 2015.

Rampant Ransoms

Kidnapping's Economic Bubble

Barely a month passes without another kidnapping at the hands of a terrorist group. Some have ended in death, others in release, which has called into question the way Western countries deal with kidnappings. Compare the December, 2014 deaths of Luke Somers, a U.S. citizen, and Pierre Korkie, a South African, with the recent successful return of two female Italian aid workers released after a reported payment (which the Italian government denies) of almost $14 million in ransom.

In 2001, the UN Security Council prohibited the financing of terrorists. In 2014, it called on member states “to prevent terrorists from benefiting directly or indirectly from ransom payments.”But evidence suggests that some states continue to pay for the release of their citizens. Others rely on negotiation, through intermediaries, to win freedom for their citizens. Press reports suggest that Pierre was hours from a negotiated release when U.S. special forces intervened. And that points to a third way that a very small number of countries, namely the United States and the United Kingdom, deal with kidnappings. They have special forces capable of mounting major rescue attempts.

Figuring out which strategy works best is more important than ever. Kidnapping-for-ransom has become a favored financing tool for terrorist groups across the globe, from the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines to al Qaeda. Recent high-profile cases involving ransom demands of millions of dollars for Western journalists, aid workers, and tourists may attract immense media attention, but many thousands of local people are taken too. Using a technique known as express kidnapping, originally a popular money-raising method in Latin America, which involves small ransoms that are easy to quickly pay, groups such as Boko Haram and al Qaeda have picked up scores of local officials and their family members, demanding a few thousand dollars at a time—which they usually get.

According to recent UN estimates, terrorist groups have earned $120 million in ransom payments between 2004 and 2012. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham alone is believed to

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