Hostages are people that have been kidnapped and taken prisoner. Their safe return is then offered in exchange for ransom money. Pay up, and the hostage is returned in one piece. Refuse and… well, then it gets really nasty.
Hostage taking is big business for terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The New York Times reported that Al-Qaeda have made $125 million from hostage taking.
More worryingly; this article in The Telegraph suggests that recent ransom demands from IS are part of a battle with Al-Qaeda to outperform one another.
The question is; should we pay up to get our loved ones home?
Both the UK and USA governments are clear; no ransom will be paid to terrorists. Their view is that paying ransoms just encourages the groups.
Some European countries take a different stance. Despite all major western countries agreeing to a G8 commitment not to pay terrorists, countries like France and Germany have not stuck to the bargain. The more that gets paid; the higher the ransoms go. C’mon guys, get with the programme.
When US journalist James Foley was murdered by Islamic State a few months after his European co-worker was freed people asked; why didn’t the US government just pay up? The amount demanded for Foley’s release was $132 million. The average amount asked for a Western hostage is £6 million. The amount asked for Foley was higher because as a US journalist, he had immense political value. As well as being illegal, hostage ransoms are just really unfair.
For years the US were also pretty tough on members of the public paying off ransoms. People paying to get loved ones home could face prosecution. Even discussing a ransom with a terrorist could be seen as a “concession”.
In the UK the Terrorism Act 2000 made funding terrorists illegal. “It’s a criminal offence to provide, use or possess funds or property where an individual intends or has reasonable cause to suspect that such funds/property will be used for the purposes of terrorism”
And in 2014 Home Secretary Teresa May made further changes; insurance companies would no longer be able to reimburse people if they had sent ransom money to terrorist groups.
So far, so tough. However, President Obama recently made an announcement that may change things.
President Obama says families will no longer be prosecuted if they send money to hostage takers.
The US government’s official policy is the same; no deals for terrorists. But the White House now also says this “does not mean ‘no communication'”.
So they won’t pay up, but they will communicate with terrorists sometimes on behalf of the families.
Does Obama’s U-turn mean the UK government will also reconsider?
We decided to ask the Home Office that very question;
“The UK’s position on payment of terrorist ransoms is very clear: we do not pay, on the basis that providing money or property to a terrorist group fuels terrorist activity; and encourages further kidnaps.”
That’s a no then.
It’s impossible to tell if Obama’s changes will lead to a rise in kidnappings across America. What is certain is that the price of hostages is being pushed up. This leads to a difficult situation. All ransom demands are different, and are calculated on the financial and political worth of the hostage. We are reaching a situation where some families will be able to afford ransom demands, whilst others may not.