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Hostages’ Ransoms: the double edged sword of terrorism funding

The Levant News Exclusive — By Beatrice Maneshi*–

The calm exhibited by so many victims before the gruesome, barbaric executions, perpetrated by Al-Qaeda and ISIS, has left much of the world audience haunted and perplexed. This apparent lack of fight and acceptance of death has been explained by a recent ISIS-defector who claims hostages are persuaded by translators that what they are experiencing is only an exercise or practice run for ransom and extortion purposes. The reason for which executioners implement this false calming messaging is first, for the hostage to be more compliant in their statement during the “practice run” (or else they might be beaten) and[i] second, the victims’ emotional outcry in the video may change the minds of often first-time executioners such as the recent child-executioner of Palestinian Mohamad Sai’id Ismaiil Musallam who was accused of being a Mossad spy on October 3, 2015.  [ii]

Israel, which holds a national policy of killing anyone who has abducted its citizens, and has even paid for the remains of soldiers killed in battle, declined to make a statement about this most recent event. The silence of the Israeli government on the subject is in line with many other countries facing Islamic militants’ ransom demands. Other countries such as Sweden, Spain, and Argentina have often attempted to keep the identities and any dealings with the terrorist hostage-takers a secret. These governments have invoked the safety of the hostage as a primary reason for this policy and that it gives them room for negotiating ransom payments; payments that are viewed as terrorism funding by countries such as the United States and Great Britain.


So Who’s Paying?


Among the high-profile hostages are those from France, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Japan, the United States, Britain, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. The only hostages who have escaped being the subject of ISIS’s blockbuster-style execution videos are Nicolar Hammerstrom and Magnus Falkehed of Sweden, Edouard Elias, Dider Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres of France, Avier Espinosa, Ricardo Garcia Vilanoca and Marc Marginedas of Spain. They are all citizens of countries holding policies of paying ransoms to their captors. As for the other hostages, such as American Journalist James Folley and British Aid worker David Hains whose respective governments have a staunch and long-standing policy of not negotiating with terrorists, they suffered an execution that has been scarred into the minds of audiences around the world. [iii]




Post 9/11 Policies


The United States and Great Britain, whose policies were greatly affected by the 9/11 terror attacks and the rise of Al Qaeda, hold that they do not negotiate with terrorists. Their policies go one step further; they put serious diplomatic pressure on countries who do negotiate with terrorists by threatening economic and political repercussions for terrorism funding.[vi]

The United States’ policies against negotiating with terrorist organizations and hostage-takers were so strict that it not only prohibited but also punished American family members or businesses for negotiating with hostage-takers of American citizens. Small changes have been made to these strict conditions. As of June 2015, the Obama administration has outlined a new policy to give leniency to families wishing to pay for the release of their loved-ones. [vii]

This new policy may be based off the thought-to-be-illegal negotiations between the family of kidnapped American journalist Peter Theo Curtis and his terrorist captors. Curtis, who was kidnapped in Syria in October 2012 and subsequently held hostage by the Al-Nusrah Front, was released approximately two years later. Al-Jazeera’s investigation suggests that security officials from Qatar took a large role in facilitating communications between Al-Nusrah and Curtis’s family. While the United States government might not have been directly involved in discussions, it would have nonetheless made use of intermediaries in order to assist with the release of the hostage. Moreover, as the kidnappers demanded a ransom of $22 million USD,[viii] the implication that the real story behind the release of Curtis has most likely not yet to be fully elucidated. He remains to this day the only American hostage successfully released from Syria.[ix]

The change in policy that has opened the door for more success stories such as that of Peter Curtis came with a stern warning from U.S. President Obama who expressed his concern that the payment of ransom would make Americans greater targets for kidnapping and increase the funding of terrorism around the world. Although the new policy removed prosecution of families wishing to negotiate, it maintained a strict governmental policy of “no concessions” when it comes to abduction. This is bad news for the more than thirty Americans currently being held hostage outside of the U.S., according to official records released by the Department of Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. [x]





Expansion of Ransom revenues industry in the MENA Region


Groups such as ISIS, the Al-Nusrah Front, and Al-Shabab have taken note of Al-Qaeda’s booming success in the context of terrorism finance through kidnapping. Since 2008, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have reportedly made $125 million USD in profits from ransom payments alone, according to The New York Times. The United States Treasury Department even offers a bigger estimate, one reporting  $165 million USD in payments over the same period. France tops the list of ransom paying countries for the 2008-2014 period with no less than $58.1 million USD as ransom payment (with $40.4 million alone for the “French Four”)[xi]. France is followed by Qatar and Oman, both of which paid  $20.4 million USD, while Switzerland, Spain and Austria made payments of $12.4 million USD, $11 million USD and $3.2 million USD, respectively.[xii]

The Al-Nusrah Front, as an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, appears to be following a strategy of funding through ransom very similar to the one used by the latter. Notably credited for detaining sixteen Lebanese officials (soldiers and security servicemen) since August 2014[1], the group, holding a prominent role in the Syrian War, does not hesitate to involve parties closely related to the conflict in question in order to pursue its agenda. Incidentally, foreign nationals of Western countries are the usual targets for abduction leading to request for ransom payments. Greater media coverage, empathy aroused from the Western population (in turn triggering popular pressure in the governments concerned) and above all the perspective of greater financial benefits, are presumably the primary motives for abducting citizens of those countries.

However, in the case of the Lebanese hostages, Al-Nusrah has been hedging its bets by requesting both a payment and a prisoner-swap. Regarding the payment, a third actor was integrated into the negotiations: Qatar. Reminiscent of its role in the negotiations over the release of American hostage Peter Theo Curtis, Qatar, weighing political and financial influence among the Syrian opposition, has been solicited by Lebanese security officials to secure payment.[xiii] But Qatar is not the only external actor involved, as Turkey has also been hosting and taking part in the negotiations.[xiv] Lebanon is bringing the matter to the attention of Turkey potentially as an effort to reiterate past successes in the resolution of hostage crises.

Incidentally, a previous hostage crisis that took place between 2012 and 2013, directly involving Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria, led to a successful multilateral effort.  In 2012, four Lebanese-Shia pilgrims were abducted in Syria while on their way to Lebanon. The abduction lead to the retaliatory abduction of two Turkish airline pilots in Lebanon by Shia clansmen. This effort was made in order to cause Turkey to exert diplomatic leverage in the release of the pilgrims.[xv] With the active role of Qatar mediating the on-going negotiation, the possibility for both the Shia pilgrims and the Turkish pilots of being freed and returned to their home country is yet to be seen. Described as an exceptional achievement of full-fledged cooperation by the parties involved, it still remains to be proven whether this episode constitutes a singular exception or if it was essential in paving the way for brighter prospects in successful multilateral cooperation.

If Al-Nusrah’s demands are met, it would result in successful hostage-taking strategy on two levels. While negotiations have been faltering since last summer, this might be an example of how the strategy of ransom payments is being used as a bargaining tool stretching beyond the mere objective of finance. This is perhaps an indication that the business of hostage-taking now includes the abduction of enemy combatants. Until recently, immediate execution has been the predominant fate of army or government officials of neighboring countries who fell into the hands of their enemies. Such an approach to hostage taking is reminiscent to the pardons executed during medieval times between parties engaged in an armed conflict.[xvi]

While data on Al-Qaeda and its affiliates’ gains from ransomed payments is readily available, it is more difficult to realistically evaluate what ISIS has earned from ransom payments since the group’s inception. In fact, during the group’s short rise to power, ISIS (unlike Al-Qaeda) does not appear to be using hostage taking as a main tool for financing its activities.

In fact, the first time ISIS publicly demanded payment of a ransom for the release of hostages was during the abduction of two Japanese nationals, Hurana Yakawa, and Kenji Goto, back in January.[xvii] The exceptionally high amount requested by ISIS for their release, $200 million USD at $100 million USD per hostage, may have suggested that for ISIS it was more a matter of eliciting attention than having its demands met.[xviii] Indeed, the Japanese government, aligning its policies with those of the United States and Great Britain, refused to pay for the release of its citizens. The subsequent execution of the hostages may confirm the hypothesis that ISIS is content with the publicity generated by the incident. The non-negligible approach may lie in ISIS’s sources of self-financing, which ranges from oil revenues to taxation, iin turn reducing the groups dependency for financing through kidnapping.[xix] While it would be presumptuous to assume that ISIS would not welcome additional money, the fear and intimidation triggered by the macabre scenarios of its abductions nonetheless creates an efficient propaganda machine aimed at recruitment and intimidation.

However, ISIS’s recent demands may indicate that it is expanding its sources of funding to include ransom. Indeed, a massive kidnapping orchestrated by ISIS in Northern Iraq last summer has proven to be highly beneficial in financial terms. By initially detaining about five thousand Yazidis from Iraqi Kurdistan, the Islamic State managed to elaborate a sophisticated system of ransom payments in exchange for the release of hostages. Up to the point of getting Kurdish authorities taking part in the bargain, notably by reimbursing the families of the hostages that have paid for their release, ISIS has undoubtedly obtained a latent acceptance by all parties of the rules of the game it has set. According to an investigation led by journalists of the terms on which negotiations were conducted, payments for the release of certain hostages have in certain cases amounted to $150,000 USD.[xx] With the great number of hostages it still has in its possession, ISIS can both count on an important source of potential revenues while continuing its strategy of propaganda through terror by perpetrating numerous summary executions of hostages.





Obscurity in Policies Dealing with Hostage taking


Unsurprisingly, paying for the release of hostages held by terrorist groups is always done in a discreet and unofficial manner. Recently, an investigation led by Al-Jazeera based on the acquisition of official documents and several testimonies, claimed that Italy had been repeatedly paying ransom to take back its nationals from terrorist kidnappers. The groups that have benefited from those payments notably include Al-Shabab – the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia – and Al-NusrahAl-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. In the former case, $525,000 USD was reportedly paid by Italian officials for the release of a couple. The couple, taken hostage while sailing off the coast of Somalia, was successfully released after what the Italian government claimed was a successful cooperation with the Somali military forces.  However, according to Al-Jazeera and the sources cited in its investigation, the willingness of the Italian government to pay ransom was the major factor in the release of the couple.

While France and Italy strongly deny paying ransom for the release of their citizens, the fact that they are not adamant in condemning the media’s open accusations suggests they see the cases, and thus the repercussion their payment carries, being slowly buried with time. Moreover, both governments currently in power in France and Italy lack popular support so it makes sense to use the successful return of their kidnapped citizens as a credit to their administrations’ elegance and diplomatic success.




The Cycle of Violence


Whether certain governments deny paying ransom in order to save face with their allies (namely the US and Great Britain) or to win domestic public support, the consequences remain the same. Their citizens will continue to be larger targets for abduction. Despite the fact that they officially maintain a policy of ‘no payment’ the governments who do pay are inevitably providing strong incentives for terrorist groups. Indeed, the terrorist groups are well aware of who pays the piper and who does not. However, from a moral and ethical standpoint the question still remains whether it is better to unequivocally enforce the ‘no payment policy’ or to unofficially resort to a policy of paying ransoms. On one hand, by upholding the policy of no concession to a terrorist group’s demand, the incentive for them to kidnap a country’s national is reduced although it is not completely eliminated. Meanwhile, those unfortunate few who are already in captivity suffer whatever fate awaits them. On the other hand, the ransom payments coming directly from governments are perceived as weakness in the eyes terror groups, and invites further exploitation. However, it does offer brighter prospects for the fate of hostages.

In the meantime, as an unprecedented number of migrants flee war-torn countries in the Middle East, Russian forces enter into Syria, Jerusalem is on fire once more, and Libya’s internal violence spreads to its neighbors. Those Western countries who answer the call for humanitarian aid will continue to be the largest targets of kidnappings victims. This leads to the growth of the industry of funding terrorism through hostage ransoms, which in turn, funds the terrorist organization that starts the vicious cycle all over again.


[1] Nine other hostages were abducted at the outcome of the same event and are currently being held by ISIS. No ongoing talks have been reported regarding the fate of these hostages.

[i] Chuie, Angie. “SIS Defector Reveals How Jihadi John Prepares Victims before Execution.” ISIS Defector Reveals How Jihadi John Prepares Victims before Execution. March 2, 2015.

[ii] Saul, Heather. “Isis Video Shows Child Militant Shooting Dead ‘Israeli Spy’ Muhammad Said Ismail Musallam.” The Independent. October 3, 2015.

[iii] ” Islamic State.” Islamic State. Accessed October 16, 2015.

[iv] Samuel, Henry. “France Denies Paying Ransom for Al-Qaeda Hostages.” The Telegraph. October 4, 2013.

[v] Callimachi, Rukmini. “Paying Ransoms, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror.” The New York Times. July 29, 2014.

[vi] Hills, Carol. “They’ll Never Admit It, but Many Countries Pay Ransoms to Get Their Hostages Back.” Public Radio International. August 21, 2014.

[vii] “Obama Clears Way for Hostages’ Families to Pay Ransom.” Al Jazeera. June 25, 2015.

[viii] Wright, Laurence. “The Secret Effort to Save the ISIS Hostages.” The New Yorker. July 6, 2015.

[ix] Ackerman, Spencer. “US Denies Paying Ransom as Qatar Secures Release of Journalist in Syria.” The Guardian. August 24, 2014.

[x] Diamond, Jeremy and Sunlen, Serfaty. “White House Says More than 30 Americans Held Hostage.” CNN. Accessed October 15, 2015.

[xi] “Ransom Money Paid to Al Qaeda 2008-2014, by Incident | Statistic.” Statista. October 1, 2015.

[xii] Imbd.

[xiii] EL MEDDEB, Selim. “Focus – Yazidi Hostages Are Big Business for IS Group.” France 24. June 24, 2015.

[xiv] Newsdesk, Naharnet. “Sources: Ibrahim in Turkey Next Week over Lebanese Hostages.” Naharnet. July 12, 2015.

[xv] “Lebanese and Turkish Hostages Freed after Rare Syrian Co-operation.” The Guardian. October 20, 2012.

[xvi] Coughlan, Sean. “Medieval Warfare Had Well-organised ‘ransom Market’ – BBC News.” BBC News. January 23, 2013.

[xvii] Spencer, Richard. “Islamic State Threatens to Kill Japan Hostages.” The Telegraph. January 20, 2015.

[xviii] Imbd.

[xix] Bronstein, Scott, and Drew Griffin. “How ISIS Makes Its Millions – CNN.com.” CNN. October 7, 2015.

[xx] EL MEDDEB, Selim. “Focus – Yazidi Hostages Are Big Business for IS Group.” France 24. June 24, 2015.


*Beatrice Maneshi is a nonproliferation and international relations analyst who pays specific focus to international law and WMD issues and the MENA region. She received her M.A. at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. Born in Tehran and raised in Northern California, she has spent many years conducting research and studying throughout the Levant. Beatrice combines her cultural-knowledge and linguistic skills to bring a balanced and fresh perspective to Middle East policy topics.



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