As more details emerge about the Briton being held captive by Isis in Syria, so the dilemma about how to respond to the tactic of hostage-taking becomes more acute.
For any government, the question of whether or not to pay hefty ransoms for the release of innocent civilians presents a desperate conundrum. Refuse, and the result may be a brutal, highly public murder. Accede, and not only have terrorist coffers been nicely topped up, but the perpetrators are emboldened to use the tactic again. A dangerous cycle develops, with targeted abductions becoming an end in themselves, rather than a by-product of militants’ general operations.
It is a hideous situation, not least for the family and friends of those in captivity. For them, release would surely come at any cost.
However, the evidence against paying ransoms is strong. We know this in part because many European governments, openly or covertly, take the “easy” option. It is therefore possible to track the ever-increasing amounts of money that terror groups charge for the release of prisoners. By one reckoning, the average ransom paid to kidnappers in 2003 was $200,000. Now it is likely to be in the region of $10m. In short, it has become one of the most effective means by which groups such as Isis and al-Qaeda stay financially viable.
The British and American administrations, and some others, have long recognised the problems that arise from negotiating with, and paying ransoms to, terrorist organisations. Putting to one side the simple question of money, there is also the important principle that negotiation confers a sense of legitimacy on the most illegitimate of organisations. A group such as Isis has no mandate and should not be treated in any way that suggests otherwise.
Nonetheless, the position of policy-makers in London and Washington has been made steadily more difficult by the contrary stance of others. The Prime Minister expressed a genuine and widely held anger when he denounced countries that allow ransoms to be paid; ransoms, as he put it, that not only enable fanatics to kidnap more innocents abroad but also to prepare terror plots in Western countries including the UK.
Ten years ago, the grim truth of the hostage predicament was gruesomely demonstrated by the case of Ken Bigley, the British engineer who was abducted and subsequently beheaded by Islamic extremists in Iraq. Mr Bigley had been working on reconstruction projects when he was captured along with two Americans. His fellow captives were killed within a matter of days; Mr Bigley’s stay of execution extended to a little over a fortnight.
Just as in subsequent and ongoing kidnappings, the UK Government would not negotiate with the group responsible. Rescue attempts by intelligence agents and a team from the SAS were unsuccessful and details remain shadowy, even a decade later. It is notable, however, that in the aftermath of Mr Bigley’s murder, his brother Philip said the family felt the Government had done all it could to secure his release. Yet as he noted then, “it could be that the fate of Ken … was sealed from day one”.
It is this tragic reality that faces the family of any Briton or American taken by Isis and its ilk. Without a united, global approach to the hostage issue, kidnappings will only continue. Hostages who happen to be French or Italian may find themselves exchanged for a vast ransom. Those from this country or the US, whatever their background or profession, are almost certain to become nothing more than extras in the cruellest of propaganda shows.