For more than six months, a frightening thought often kept Kurdish farmer Mofaq Haji Rashid up at night: he might never see his 23-year-old son again.
The nightmare begun during the Muslim holiday of Eid in late May when Islamic State (IS) militants kidnapped Dilan Mofaq Rashid, and his 22-year-old colleague, Issa Taha, while they were on duty as federal security guards for electricity pylons in the northern oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
Kirkuk falls within the so-called disputed territories claimed by both Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), an area which, observers say, has become the country’s biggest IS hotbed in recent months.
What made Rashid’s father particularly concerned was that IS in the past had shown little mercy to its Kurdish Peshmerga captives. It usually beheaded them in propaganda videos for the world to see as the price for collaborating with the United States.
Good news, however, came in early June when the Rashids received a phone call, saying that their son was alive and could be freed along with his colleague if both families paid $150,000 in ransom.
Bargaining with IS
While it was a relief for Rashid to learn his son was still alive, he remained skeptical about the IS demand, not just because the ransom demand was so much money, but also because there was no guarantee that the terror group would live up to its end of the bargain.
“We could not believe them,” he told VOA in a phone interview last week. “We thought they might take our money and kill our son, too. But we had no choice except for doing as they said.”
The hostages’ families, however, did not pay the whole sum demanded. After nearly a dozen phone calls of tough back-and-forth negotiations, in which IS repeatedly threatened to kill the hostages, the kidnappers agreed to free both men on November 29 in exchange for $40,000, nearly one-fourth of the initial demanded amount.
Haji Rashid said his friends and relatives chipped in to raise the money.
“About two hours after receiving the money, they released our sons, leaving them in the Patak area near Znana village” he said, referring to a rural area in northern Saladin province. He added that Kurdish security forces had helped the families locate the area where the hostages were left by the IS militants.
VOA did not receive a reply from Jotiar Adil, a spokesman for Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, a U.S. ally in the fight against IS, to the question of whether his government supported the notion of paying ransom to free hostages held by terror groups.
To pay or not to pay ransom
Globally, governments remain divided overpaying terrorist groups ransom to win the release of their nationals, with opponents arguing that such payments only contribute to the growth of the criminal enterprise.
While the U.S., for example, is vehemently opposed to paying ransom to terrorists, other Western governments, such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany, have reportedly paid millions of dollars to secure the release of their citizens held by terrorists.
In 2014, IS demanded a ransom of $132 million for the release of American journalist James Foley before he was decapitated. U.S. officials had reportedly threatened Foley’s family with criminal charges for supporting terrorism if they abided by the IS demand.
Before IS lost control over its so-called caliphate territory in Iraq and Syria, it generated millions of dollars through illicit activities such as selling oil, stealing ancient artifacts, and imposing taxes on local residents. Observers say the Sunni extremist group now uses kidnapping for ransom as a key funding source for its insurgent activities.
“My sense is that extortion will remain a primary source of revenue for the group, in addition to armed robbery and theft, and kidnapping for ransom,” said Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a New York-based think tank focusing on security.
“There may also be more of a temptation to engage in smuggling and trafficking of illicit goods,” he told VOA.
In 2019, Clarke co-authored an extensive Rand Corporation report on Islamic State’s finances.
“When [IS] does not control territory,” the report said, “the group carries out what can be considered criminal activity, including extorting contracts, demanding protection money, and stealing and reselling goods, among other activities.”
Although IS has been severely weakened, some experts say it appears to remain capable of making money off smuggled oil in Iraq and Syria.
Last week, the U.S. Department of State announced a $5 million reward for “information that disrupts the sale/or trade of oil or antiquities.”
In October, U.S. Treasury Department estimated IS’s cash reserves to be at $100 million.
While ransom bought freedom for the two Kurdish hostages, no amount of money can make them easily forget the traumatic experience they suffered while in captivity.
“My son is very sad and cannot see well anymore,” Haji Rashid said. “He says they kept telling him they would kill him. Anytime he asked for water or tea, he was first given a slap in the face.”