The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

What to do about the kidnapping for ransom problem

President Obama announced the results of a study to overhaul U.S. policy for handling hostage crises this June, a consequence of the execution of four courageous, compassionate Americans at the hands of the Islamic State the preceding year. Yet America’s struggle with kidnapping for ransom by terrorist groups goes on, most notably because it is believed other Americans are still being held hostage by terrorists overseas.

The use of kidnapping for ransom continues to grow, according to both American and United Nations sources.

{mosads}In 2012, Washington’s top official for combating terror finance described kidnapping for ransom as “today’s most significant source of terror financing.” While larger revenue sources such as oil sales have since boosted the Islamic State’s income, the volume of money al-Qaeda and IS are taking in from such ransoms has also grown over those last three years, exceeding $165 million U.S. dollars according to one credible estimate.

The Obama administration’s new policies for tackling kidnapping for ransom include some important new measures, creating new offices responsible for handling the operational management, policy oversight, diplomatic outreach, and intelligence analysis for ongoing hostage cases involving Americans. But while these policies and new stated emphasis on greater engagement with hostages’ families are positive steps in the right direction, America’s hostage policy overhaul fall notably short in one critical respect.

There is little indication that the administration’s new efforts at hostage recovery will be matched with new efforts to persuade foreign governments – most notably U.S. allies – to stop paying ransoms directly or indirectly to terrorists from state coffers. These payments are reportedly a key source of the escalating kidnapping for ransom problem, funding the conquest of territory by violent extremists and encouraging future attacks.

A shocking investigation by Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times concluded that “Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of Al Qaeda” by paying such ransoms, with France allegedly topping the list at $58.1 million. She also concluded that al-Qaeda’s North African branch got its start with €5 million in seed funding paid by the German government in exchange for dozens of kidnapped European tourists.

According to the Associated Press, “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.” Reuters reported last year that “Qatari officials deny paying ransom for hostages, but Western diplomatic sources in Doha say otherwise.”

Doha’s reported role is particularly puzzling. After conducting a detailed search through English and Arabic news sources, I have identified reports of fifteen different episodes over the last three years in which Qatar is reported to have mediated hostage talks. Typically in these reported cases, the kidnapper is a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, and often the reports claim a ransom was discussed or allegedly paid to terrorists by Qatar.

For example, Ellen Knickmeyer of the Wall Street Journal reported that in the case of thirteen nuns and three other women held hostage by al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, “Qatar paid a $16 ransom, according to a Lebanese official.” She also reported that Yemeni and European officials stated Qatar and Oman paid a combined $20.4 million in ransoms to al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch in exchange for the release of four Europeans.

Similarly, Shane Harris and Jamie Kirchick of the Daily Beast reported in January that “sources close to efforts to free other Americans held abroad said that Qatar facilitated a ransom payment to help free journalist Peter Theo Curtis.” Curtis was actually a penname for an American named Theo Padnos released by Nusra in August of last year. Padnos’s relatives had reported receiving ransom demands ranging from $3 million to $25 million.

Qatar’s reported involvement in so many hostage negotiations would be particularly remarkable since the hostages are usually not its own citizens, causing observers to wonder what Qatar would get out of the equation beyond simply doing a favor for families in need. Doha obviously seeks to ingratiate itself to other governments as well, boosting its international profile. However, it also has been markedly ambivalent about cracking down on al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, to which several of these alleged ransom payments have gone.

According to U.S. officials cited by the Wall Street Journal, “commanders of the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s arm in Syria, began visiting Doha in 2012 for meetings with senior Qatari military officials and financiers.” Also, individuals sanctioned by the U.S. on charges of funding the Nusra Front or other al-Qaeda branches apparently have yet to be arrested by Doha.

There are several things the U.S. government – and Congress in particular – can do to discourage other governments from paying state ransoms to terrorist groups, which Knickmeyerhas called “game-changers” in the escalating price and practice of kidnapping.

The U.S. government should stigmatize those governments that do pay such ransoms directly or indirectly out of state funds. Congress could require the administration to expose such governments in public through legislatively-mandated annual reporting, perhaps even imposing targeted financial sanctions. This could hopefully help discourage and therefore reduce the volume of such payments by convincing well-off European or Gulf governments to get out of the business of underwriting them.

President Obama or Secretary of State Kerry should also direct U.S. diplomats to prioritize convincing host governments in several key countries to stop the payment of such state ransoms. Congress can also encourage policy-makers abroad to enact such prohibitions into local law along with other best practices for handling terrorist hostage crises. 

The good news is that America has a new plan for trying to improve our efforts at hostage recovery, and the proof will be in how well those measures are implemented by U.S. government agencies in the weeks and months ahead.

However, the bad news is that American policy is failing to deter foreign governments, particularly some of our allies, from paying multi-million dollar ransoms that enrich and incentivize terrorists who conduct kidnapping attacks.

Our government still needs a new strategy to address this critical part of the kidnapping for ransom equation. Congress can play a crucial role by starting the conversation.

Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article is adapted from his testimony today before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade.


More Foreign Policy News

See All

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video