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West Trades Accusations Over Hostage Ransoms

  • Henry Ridgwell

As world leaders meet in Paris to try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. There is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.

In the latest video from Islamic State militants in Syria posted online Sunday, a British hostage - Alan Henning - is threatened with beheading. Moments earlier, the same video showed the execution of fellow British aid worker David Haines.

The grim developments formed the backdrop of an Iraq Security meeting in Paris Monday. In an interview, the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was asked to respond to claims that France does pay ransom money to terrorist organizations.

Fabius denied accusations France had paid ransoms. “You seem to have information that I don't have,” he said, adding that he could confirm that France does not pay ransoms.

But analysts say evidence suggests otherwise. French media claimed the state paid $34 million in ransom money for the release of four French hostages kidnapped in Niger in 2010, by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Ian Bond is Head of Foreign Policy at the Center for European Reform.

“What we saw with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was that they did very good business by kidnapping Western tourists in places like Niger and Mali and then collected ransoms from governments in Europe. And that’s a very negative phenomenon," said Bond.

In reality, most Western countries have paid ransoms in the past, says Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment in Oslo.

“No country is innocent of this. But I think it’s clear now that some European countries have been doing it more," said Hegghammer.

The latest Islamic State victim, Briton David Haines, was seized with an Italian colleague - who was released earlier this year. It was reported that a ransom had been paid - although the Italian government did not comment. The British government says it will continue to refuse to pay ransoms. Andrew Silke is Director of Terrorism Studies at the University of East London.

“The UK's attitude on this is that if they pay a ransom, they'll simply encourage terrorist groups around the world to take British citizens hostage, and put more people's lives in danger," said Silke.

The United States says it also refuses to pay ransom money. Last month, James Foley, an American journalist captured by militants in Syria, was beheaded. His employers, GlobalPost, said Islamic State had demanded $132 million for his release. Days later, fellow American journalist Steven Sotloff suffered the same fate. Hannah Stuart is a terror analyst at the Henry Jackson Society in London.

“Ideally we would have an international consensus so perhaps Western liberal democracies, who are the targets of this type of hostage-taking, could agree to not pay ransoms. But then you run into sovereignty issues and you can’t tell other governments how best to protest their citizens," said Stuart.

A 2012 estimate by the United States Treasury suggested that terrorist organizations had collected around $120 million in ransom payments in the previous eight years. Washington argues that while paying a ransom may save one life, it only fuels a kidnapping industry - with horrific results.

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