Four months ago, four French journalists held in Syria by Isis were freed after, it was claimed, Francois Hollande’s government paid a hefty ransom. The reports were quite detailed; defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, it was said, had personally carried the cash to the Turkish capital, Ankara.
The claim was denied by Elysee Palace which pointed out that “President Hollande has said it is a very important principle that hostage-takers should not be tempted to take others”. A month before that, two Spanish journalists were also freed by Isis. On that occasion, a foreign ministry spokeswoman in Madrid refused to comment on whether money had changed hands. Her government, she stressed, uses “maximum discretion” when dealing with kidnappings.
The matter of state payment of ransoms is in focus after claims that Isis had offered to release the American journalist, Jim Foley, in return for money and that this was rebuffed by the US administration. Two conclusions may be drawn from this. 1) Foley’s life was likely to have been saved if such money had been paid; and 2) the declaration by the Islamist terrorists that they executed him purely in righteous retaliation for US air strikes against them is a sham; the ransom demands had continued after the military action had begun in Iraq.
The wider issue is one of the lack of unity among Western allies on paying ransom to kidnappers. The US and UK have a stated policy of not doing so. Some others, despite their protestations to the contrary, pay up, although they launder the process through intermediaries.
Two years ago, the G8 group of countries issued a statement that it was repugnant to reward hostage taking. A few months later, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, and Mr Le Drian, were on the tarmac in the Niger capital Niamey to welcome four employees of the nuclear firm Areva, who had been captive for three years. At the time the Elysee was forced to deny that a ransom of 30 million euros was paid.
The French and the Spanish are not the only Western states said to have acceded to kidnappers’ financial demands: the same has been said of the Germans, the Italians and the Swiss. And just how scrupulous are the British in adhering to their stated principle? In 2010, the British husband-and-wife Paul and Rachel Chandler were freed by Somali pirates, who had hijacked their yacht and held them captive for 13 months, after around £600,000 had been paid out. The money was supposedly raised by the Somali community in the UK; but there were persistent claims that it came, in fact, from UK aid to the fledgling government in Mogadishu, with the approval of the British government.
Ransom payments have become a highly lucrative source of terrorist revenue. “Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure,” wrote Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula to an associate two years ago. The New York Times estimated that since 2008, al-Qa’ida and its fellow travellers had made at least $125m from kidnappings - $66m just last year.
I know two of the six freed Spanish and French journalists quite well, and I could not be happier that all of them are safe. Along with other friends of Jim Foley, I fervently wish he was still alive. But as long as Western governments remain divided on whether to pay to save the lives of their citizens, many of those whose work takes them to hazardous areas will, unfortunately, continue to be hostages to fortune.