James Foley beheading: Governments’ lack of consistency on paying ransoms puts lives at risk


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The Independent Online

Four months ago, four French journalists held by Isis in Syria were freed after, it was claimed, François Hollande’s government paid a hefty ransom. The reports were quite detailed: the Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, it was said, had personally carried the cash to the Turkish capital, Ankara. The claim was denied by the Élysée 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, the foreign ministry in Madrid refused to comment on whether money had changed hands. The government, a spokeswoman stressed, used “maximum discretion” when dealing with kidnappings.

This is in focus after revelations that Isis had offered to release the US journalist James Foley in return for money, and that this was rebuffed by the Obama administration. Two conclusions may be drawn from this: that Jim’s life was likely to have been saved if the money was paid, and that 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 military action had begun in Iraq.

The wider issue is one of the lack of unity among Western allies on paying ransom to kidnappers. Britain and the US have a stated policy of not doing so. 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 saying it was repugnant to reward hostage-taking. A few months later, as four employees of the French nuclear firm Areva were freed after three years, Paris was forced to deny a ransom of €30m (£24m) was paid.


The French and the Spanish are not the only Western states accused of caving in to kidnappers’ financial demands: the same charges have been made against the Germans, Italians and Swiss. And just how scrupulous are the British in adhering to their stated principle? Paul and Rachel Chandler, a couple from Tunbridge Wells, were freed by Somali pirates who hijacked their yacht after £600,000 was 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.

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 estimates that al-Qa’ida and its fellow travellers made at least $66m (£40m) from kidnapping last year alone.

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 take them to hazardous areas will, unfortunately, continue to be hostages to fortune.