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Foley case lays bare debate over paying ransom

Friday - 8/22/2014, 7:49am  ET

LARA JAKES
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The beheading of freelance journalist James Foley has forced a new debate between the longtime U.S. and British refusal to negotiate with terrorists, and Europe and the Persian Gulf's increasing willingness to pay ransoms in a desperate attempt to free citizens. The dilemma: How to save the lives of captives without financing terror groups and encouraging more kidnappings.

By paying ransoms, governments in the Mideast and Europe have become some of the biggest financiers of terror groups. By refusing to do likewise, the U.S. and Britain are in the thankless position of putting their own citizens at a disadvantage.

Foley's captors, the Islamic State militants, had for months demanded $132.5 million (100 million euros) from his parents and political concessions from Washington. They got neither, and the 40-year-old freelance journalist from New Hampshire was savagely beheaded within the last week inside Syria, where he had been held since his disappearance in November 2012.

Islamic State militants also demanded $132.5 million for two other American hostages they are holding in Syria, a person close to the situation said late Thursday.

Extremists called Foley's death a revenge killing for the 90 U.S. airstrikes, as of Thursday, that have been launched against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq since Aug. 8. But the ransom demands began late last year, even before the Islamic State -- one of the world's most financially thriving extremist groups -- had begun its brutal march across much of western and northern Iraq.

"They don't need to do this for money," said Matthew Levitt, a counter-terror expert at the Washington Institute think-tank. "When you ask for $132 million, for the release of one person, that suggests that you're either trying to make a point ... or you don't really need the money."

A senior Obama administration official said Thursday the Islamic State had made a "range of requests" from the U.S. for Foley's release, including changes in American policy and posture in the Mideast.

At the State Department, deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the militancy -- which controls a swath of land across northern Syria and Iraq -- has collected millions of dollars in ransoms so far this year alone.

"We do not make concessions to terrorists," Harf told reporters. "We do not pay ransoms."

"The United States government believes very strongly that paying ransom to terrorists gives them a tool in the form of financing that helps them propagate what they're doing," she said. "And so we believe very strongly that we don't do that, for that reason."

The issue of payments by American families or U.S. corporations is now under debate within the Obama administration, according to a U.S. official familiar with the conversations who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss them by name.

The USA Patriot Act prohibits any payment or assistance to terror groups that could boost their support. The families of three Americans held by a rebel group in Colombia for five years, for example, were repeatedly advised against sending even medication and sneakers to the hostages to avoid potentially breaking the law.

But prosecution in those types of cases is rare and enforced haphazardly. "I never saw, in my time as an FBI agent, where the U.S. government threatened to prosecute a family for paying a ransom," said Clinton Van Zandt, the FBI's former chief hostage negotiator.

He said government-paid ransoms help create "a growing cottage industry in kidnap ransoms."

"You may get that person back that time, but what you've done is put a price tag on the head of every American overseas," he said. "And you've advertised that we pay to get Americans back."

Diplomats say ransoms paid or arranged by western European governments and the Gulf state of Qatar have provided the bulk of financial support for violent groups. That has spurred the U.S. and Britain -- as well as some north African states -- to push a campaign discouraging ransom payments.

In January, the U.S. and Britain secured a U.N. Security Council resolution appealing to governments not to pay ransom to terror groups. The Group of Eight, a bloc of some of the world's most developed economies, made the same pledge a year ago, also under U.S. and British pressure.

U.S. and British officials say it's not clear to what extent allied governments are abiding by those pledges.

The Treasury Department has estimated at least $140 million worth of ransoms have been paid to al-Qaida and other terror groups in Africa and the Mideast since 2004.

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