ISIS broadcast its killing of captured American journalist James Foley to show the U.S. what awaits anyone who challenges the Islamic State’s march across Iraq and Syria. Foley’s killing was a blunt and stomach-churning bit of messaging that joined ISIS’s cold-hearted ambitions with one of international terrorism’s most prominent pieces of tradecraft: hostage-taking.
According to a June 2014 statement by Treasury undersecretary David S. Cohen, ransom payments are now second only to state sponsorship as a source of revenue for terrorist organisations, implying that kidnapping for profit is ahead of even private contributions, bank robbery, and other forms of fundraising. To be sure, Foley was killed for political and ideological reasons — and possibly to trigger a galvanizing or strategically costly U.S. response. But ISIS also has a recent history of using other foreign prisoners as a means of filling its coffers.
Kidnapping was a crucial early source of funding as ISIS scaled up its operations in 2013, and the group has had some success in ransoming foreign prisoners. It released two Spanish journalists after receiving an undisclosed sum in March of 2014, and there’s evidence that ISIS was looking for smaller payoffs, too. In a recent article in the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat translated by Al Monitor, a former ISIS prisoner recounted his jailers demanding $US100,000 apiece for the freedom of two ethnic Armenians held in a prison in northeastern Syria.
Today, ISIS’s revenue tops $US1 million a day, according to two RAND Corporation researchers writing in The New York Times. But before it controlled a nearly Belgium-sized slice of the Middle East, it depended on kidnapping as a revenue driver. Luckily for ISIS, the group had the assistance of a powerful foreign intermediary, a government trusted by mainstream members of the international community and brutal nonstate groups alike: Qatar.
In April of 2014, a McClatchy report cited anonymous European intelligence agents who claimed the gas-rich Gulf emirate had helped broker the release of ISIS-held foreign hostages on three occasions. The same report said that the agents believe Qatar was the unnamed Persian Gulf country that had helped broker a “sizable payment” that secured the April release of four French journalists whom the group had been holding captive.
Qatar has facilitated payments to a range of terrorist groups, including a $US4 million fee that freed 13 nuns from Syrian Jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, and a $US20.4 million ransom paid with the Omani government to spring four hostages from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Most notably, Qatar helped broker the release of U.S. Army officer Bowe Bergdahl, whom the Taliban had held for nearly five years.
It seems unlikely that any ransom payment would have been able to save Foley’s life, though. He was more useful to ISIS as a demonstration of the group’s brutality and intentions than as a potential source of cash.
But kidnapping has been a longstanding practice for ISIS. And it’s been incentivized, in part, through the actions and cooperation of a U.S. ally — and through the willingness of both private actors and governments to deal with them.
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