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 U.S. journalist Luke Somers and the South African teacher Pierre Korkie. This January, the American aid worker Warren Weinstein and the Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, both held by al Qaeda in Pakistan, were inadvertently killed by a U.S. drone strike. And in February, ISIS announced that the American human rights activist Kayla Mueller, a hostage since August 2013, had been killed in a Jordanian air strike.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged, for the first time, that the country had failed American hostages and their families. Although Washington still continues to oppose ransom payments, it will now be open to communicating and negotiating with hostage takers, and it will not stop families from paying ransoms on their own.

President Barack Obama announces a change in U.S. hostage policy in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, June 24, 2015. Jonathan Ernst / Courtesy Reuters

With the policy shift, Obama is attempting the impossible task of balancing two uncomfortable truths: paying ransoms to designated terrorist groups may encourage further kidnapping (and is against international law), but paying ransoms may

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