This week, President Obama announced a new government policy for handling U.S. citizens who are held hostage overseas. Unfortunately, this new policy is likely to lead to yet more kidnappings, and for the first time, terrorists will enjoy the same financial incentive in kidnapping Americans as they do Europeans.
The new policy allows for families of kidnapped Americans to communicate (read: negotiate) with the terrorist captors of their loved ones. While the United States government will continue its policy of not paying ransoms, it will now allow its citizens to do so.
The French, Italian, and other European governments have bankrolled al Qaeda and its affiliates to the tune of $125 million since 2008.
It seems hard to believe, but it’s true. European governments, with the exception of the United Kingdom, have been paying Islamic terrorists ransom money in exchange for hostages since 2003.
The effects of these payments are twofold, and terrifying.
First, Western governments that pay ransoms incentivize terrorists to kidnap as many Westerners as possible. As Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, wrote in a 2012 letter, “Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.”
David S. Cohen, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, concurs: “Kidnapping for ransom has become today’s most significant source of terrorist financing… Each transaction encourages another transaction.”
Second, and perhaps most importantly, every ransom payment by European governments gets American and British nationals killed.
The United States and Great Britain have long held firm in their unwillingness to pay ransoms, which leaves its citizens largely useless to the terrorists who capture them. As we have seen many times in recent years, most notably in the grisly execution of James Foley at the hands of his ISIS captors in 2014, once an American is taken hostage, his or her chances of survival largely depends on either rescue (in the form of a military operation) or escape.
So what are the American and British governments to do?
Are we right to join the Europeans in allowing ransom payments, reversing over 200 years of principled foreign policy in the process?
Or should we pressure our European friends to simply stop paying ransoms? Doing so would starve terrorists of their single-greatest source of income, and would naturally cripple their ability to… well, commit terrorism (kidnapping Westerners certainly qualifies), in order to fund more terrorism.
To terrorists who thrive on kidnapping, the distinction is irrelevant. Money is money, regardless of the source. As far as they are concerned, the United States just joined their business.