The politics of ransom paying: should governments give money to armed groups in exchange for hostages?
The taking of Western hostages in an attempt to extort money from Europe and the US has become a regular, if disturbing, feature of conflicts across the Middle East.
But while some governments are willing to pay to secure the release of their nationals – albeit secretly and through deniable back channels – others insist that the practice only encourages the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and similar groups to kidnap more victims and perpetuate a trade that provides funds to extremists.
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So what lies behind these different approaches? And when, if ever, is it right to pay for hostages’ freedom? Reporter Jonathan Holmes went in search of answers.
It's true, the French government doesn't pay ransoms, but when we have French hostages, someone pays a ransom. It's impossible to make somebody free without paying if you are French. Perhaps if you are Australian or American or British, it's possible. But if you are French, no. We pay.
In a two-month spree in 2014, ISIL brutally executed five Westerners after holding them captive for several months or years. Three were American, two were British.
But in the lead-up to those murders, 15 continental European hostages, who had been held in the same underground cell in Syria as the murdered men, were released and returned to their families.
The difference? European governments routinely negotiate the payment of multi-million dollar ransoms to hostage-takers belonging to armed groups deemed as terrorists. The British and American governments do not.
For a week he was handcuffed together with American reporter Jim Foley. Foley would become the first American to be beheaded, in August 2014. But by then, Henin and three fellow Frenchmen had been released.
European governments routinely deny that they pay ransoms. Indeed Henin was told as much by French President Francois Hollande after his release.
“He told me, looking me in the eyes: France did not pay,” says Henin.
But a French member of parliament, Alain Marsaud, is adamant that somebody must have come up with the ransom.
“It’s impossible to make somebody free without paying if you are French. Perhaps if you are Australian or American or British, it’s possible. But if you are French, no. We pay.”
Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times, has investigated the paper trail leading from European countries towards the Middle East, and has found that in fact some governments routinely negotiate the payment of multi-million dollar ransoms – while pretending not to.
“They’ve created a system of proxies that allows them in some very literal interpretation of that question to claim that they haven’t paid, especially in Africa. A European government would send the money and disguise it as a humanitarian payment, and then officials in the country would then pass it forward.”
But she acknowledges the dilemma that other governments face. “It’s really a problem from hell. I mean if you pay, I think there’s no question that if you pay you are perpetuating the problem. If nobody paid, we would not be sitting here having this conversation; at the same time, is it okay to let innocent people die in this most horrific of ways? It’s a pretty bleak prospect for Americans that are taken captive by these groups.”
It also worries Phillip Balboni, the former employer of murdered American Jim Foley, who was freelancing for the Balboni’s US news website Global Post at the time he was kidnapped.
He says: “We have four dead young Americans and all of the European hostages are alive – all of them – with their families and that’s a stark difference. The US and UK governments need to reflect on that outcome.”