Pay the Price

Washington's Change of Heart on Ransom Payments

A yellow ribbon hangs on a tree outside the family home of James Foley in Rochester, New Hampshire, August 2014. Brian Snyder / Courtesy Reuters

Until June 2014, the hostage policy of the United States was clear. In seeking to secure the safe release of hostages, the United States would pay no ransoms and make no political concessions to terrorists. Unlike countries, mainly in Europe, that paid ransoms despite international censure, the United States held that “hostage takers looking for ransoms distinguish between those governments that pay ransoms and those that do not, and make a point of not taking hostages from those countries that do not pay.”

Within months, however, it became clear that the United States’ hostage policy was far from perfect. In August 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) broadcast the murder of American journalist James Foley, followed soon by the murders of the American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff and the aid worker Peter Kassig. Then, during a December 2014 military rescue attempt in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula killed the

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