Today, president Barack Obama announced changes to the US’s handling of hostage cases involving American citizens held by terrorist groups.
The announcement included one fairly important shift in the US government’s generally attitude towards hostage cases.
Obama twice clarified that the “US government” would not pay ransoms, arguing that this “risks endangering more Americans and funding the very terrorism that we’re trying to stop.”
This is an important qualifier: the US authorities won’t pay or facilitate ransom payments. But the Justice Department apparently won’t actively stand in the way of a family that wants to negotiate or even pay such a ransom, even if a US-designated terror group is the recipient.
In recent years, hostage-taking has become a major source of terrorist income, with Al Qaeda and its affiliates taking in $US125 million in ransoms, according to the New York Times.
Terrorist groups took advantage of various European governments’ unacknowledged policy of making and facilitating ransom payments (with France alone paying nearly $US60 million).
The US, on the other hand, followed a strict policy of not paying ransoms.
“It’s a collective action problem,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracy and an expert on nonstate armed groups, told Business Insider. “The US had one policy while the European states had a different policy and pretended they didn’t. Rather than pressure the European countries the US is just changing its policies.”
In other words, the willingness of other governments to pay ransoms has created a lucrative market for hostage-taking to which the US government is now adapting. The US’s compromise is to disallow government payments but not to explicitly stand in the way of private ones.
The announcement follows an article for The New Yorker in which Lawrence Wright reported that the family of Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist that ISIS executed in September of 2014, was repeatedly threatened with prosecution for trying to negotiate a ransom amount — even though an FBI agent assigned to the handling of Sotloff’s captivity implied to the captured journalist’s parents that such a prosecution was extremely unlikely.
Obama said that the US government would not threaten to prosecute family members of hostages who attempted to negotiate or pay ransom demands with terrorist groups.
“No family of an American hostage has ever been prosecuted for paying ransom for their loved on,” the president said, according to CNN. “The last thing we should ever do is to add to a family’s pain with threats like that.”
‘A new level of pain for the rest of society’
The new policy tries to address a wrenching moral and legal dilemma for US policymakers: Should the US stand in the way of a family that is attempting to recover a loved one if it means preventing the transfer of money to a terrorist group? Are there limits to how far the US should go in recovering hostages — and in how far the US government should let private citizens go?
Dane Egli dealt with these questions as head of National Security Council’s Hostage Working Group from 2004 to 2006, overseeing the working group at points when there were as many as 50 US citizens held abroad. During his tenure, the George W. Bush administration came down against the payment of ransoms.
Today, Egli is concerned that any change in policy that makes it easier to pay ransoms will end up benefiting terrorist groups.
In saving a life in exchange for enriching a terrorist group, Egli says that,”You’ve relieved pain for one family, but you’ve created a new level of pain for the rest of society.”
‘We need to place the good of the nation higher’
He says there are better ways of facilitating hostages’ releases, like raising the incentives for rank-and-file hostage-takers to turn on their commanders — a tactic that Egli says was successful with FARC militants in Colombia.
For Egli, it’s important that policymakers approach hostage issues with a society-level view.
“When it comes to hostages we don’t’ just recognise the family or the individual good,” says Egli. “We need to place the good of the nation higher.”
Egli described any increased willingness to pay ransoms as “an insidious spiral into a new market” — a chance for terror groups to enrich themselves on a nationality of hostages that’s historically been unwilling to comply with ransom demands.
Consequently, the new policy could signal an important shift in the Obama administration’s overall view of hostage issues during its final year and a half in office.
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