The West’s Dilemma


Edited by Gillian Palmer


Payment of ransom for persons kidnapped by jihadis poses a tough quandary to governments.

The demand of 100 million euros in ransom for the life of James Foley adds more foulness, if possible, to the murder of the American journalist perpetrated by the Islamic State (IS). A week before publicizing a video with the reporter’s beheading, the organization sent an email to his family demanding the figure, obviously impossible to pay for any average citizen, but within the reach of the United States government. Washington, which at the beginning of the summer unsuccessfully sent special forces to Iraq in order to rescue the hostages, remained firm on the position which it follows in these cases: There is no negotiation with terrorists, nor any yielding to blackmail. In his self-justifying verbal diarrhea, the IS executioner claimed to kill Foley in response to the American bombing of IS positions in Iraq, without any reference, of course, to the money.

It will never be known if Foley would still have been decapitated had the ransom been paid, but there is no doubt that the kidnappings of Western civilians have become a lucrative source of financing for diverse jihadi terrorist groups. Faced with this situation, the international community’s response has been uneven. It oscillates among the absolute refusal of any type of negotiation, the appeal to local or international intermediaries which help to unfreeze the situation, as Spain did in the case of the 2008 kidnapping of an aid worker in Somalia, and ending in some cases when governments — far from public view, one imagines — decide to pay the ransom of their citizens.

None of the options is easy and all of them generate not only moral, but also political and security dilemmas. As a principle, no state under the rule of law can yield to blackmail by these criminal organizations. But in order to be effective, this posture must be accompanied by a near total decision among democratic nations in not compromising, however complicated and painful the circumstances may be. In addition to the pain that they cause to private citizens, the kidnappings cannot be used for financing new criminal acts against the same societies that pay ransom. The jihadi organizations undoubtedly have other sources of financing, but the ideal would be that kidnappings are definitively ended.

However, reality is always more complex than abstract principles, however strong they may be. Each kidnapping is different, as is each country that the victim belongs to and each organization that perpetrates the crime. Judging the different governments, applauding some and condemning others for what they do in these situations, does not lead to anything. It only makes the necessary international coordination for confronting this scourge more difficult. And it ultimately delights the terrorists facing the obvious division created.

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