The Lucrative Kidnapping Business: How Ransoms Fund Terror

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Each year, terrorist organizations make millions of dollars from ransoming kidnapped foreigners.

In 2014, the world has closely witnessed the horror of terrorist kidnappings. Islamic militants Boko Haram kidnapped over 300 school girls as retaliation against Nigeria’s government, and the Islamic State (ISIS) took numerous hostages–an endeavor that lead to the execution of American journalists James Foley and (allegedly) Steven Sotloff after the United States refused to negotiate.

Like the U.S., most western governments claim not to cooperate with terrorists, but in practice this isn’t always true.

Though all major western countries signed a 2013 G8 commitment not to pay terrorist ransoms, only the U.S. and U.K.have acted firmly in this regard, while countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain appear to have funneled money in secrecy against official policy.

Kidnapping For Ransom: a lucrative business

Terrorists groups make money in numerous ways: bank robberies, extortion, selling stolen goods and ransoming hostages are some lucrative tactics that fund terrorist groups like Boko Haram, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

Kidnapping for ransom, or KFR, has been called “our most significant terrorist financing threat today” by the U.S. Treasury.

Just how much do terrorist groups make from kidnapping alone? While there are no exact figures available, the New York Times estimated in recent investigation that Al Qaeda and its affiliates received at least $125 million since 2008, and $66 million in 2013 alone paid primarily by European governments.

According to a 2012 press release by the U.S. Treasury, ransom money helps fund a full range of terrorist activities, including recruiting and indoctrinating new members, paying militants, starting training camps, acquiring weapons, staging attacks, and supporting further generations of extremist groups.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”YrfQOO7h3iV0PpiIzVo4xX1q5inE9Q1C”]Western ransom policy

As we mentioned earlier, there is an apparent divide between the U.S. and European countries in their approach to terrorist abductions.

Islamic State extremists reportedly asked for $132 million in exchange for James Foley, a ransom they must have known would not possibly be paid. Though the U.S. attempted to rescue the journalist and other hostages, their mission failed, and Foley was beheaded as a warning against further U.S. airstrikes.

It’s important to note that the U.S. has seemingly negotiated with terrorists before, as recently as May 2014 when five Taliban commanders were exchanged for American prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

KFR is different from negotiated swaps, however, in that it funds broader terrorist operations and creates incentives for more kidnapping.

Other countries, as mentioned earlier, have caved into similar demands. The New York Times investigation found that France alone funnelled $58 million in ransom since 2008, Switzerland paid $12.4 million, and Spain $5.9 million.

Just this spring, four French journalists were freed by ISIS and returned home relatively unscathed. Though France denies their negotiations included ransoms, others are skeptical and believe intermediate payments were likely.

Who else has been kidnapped?

The fact that there also were more French hostages in the world than any other country in 2013 may be evidence that motive for ransom leads to more kidnappings. That number is now only two, while the U.S. has 10 known hostages and China has 12.

That’s by the Intel Center Database’s (ICD) records. But may have been more people abducted than are known hostages–the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) keeps a record, and finds that at least 39 journalists are still missing worldwide.

That Americans have been kidnapped in spite of the country’s firm anti-ransom policies is indeed troubling, as it indicates ISIS motives are political rather than financial. For these individuals, the only difference between freedom and a death sentence are their American nationality.

The U.S. will not likely budge on its tactics, and unfortunately, this comes with consequences: As ISIS continues to carry out its threats by killing hostages, the end is far from near.

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Jennifer Markert