Terrorist Ransoms Are Still a Mistake

Not every mission is a success.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

Over the weekend in Yemen, unofficial negotiations to ransom a South African teacher held by terrorists almost succeeded. And they would have, except that they ran into a separate attempt to free an American hostage by use of military force, which failed. In the end, both prisoners, held by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, were killed.

If ever there was a moment to question the U.S. policy against ransoming hostages, this might seem to be one. But ransom remains the wrong policy, and for several reasons.

Just to be clear, there's no question who carries moral responsibility for the deaths of Pierre Korkie, the teacher, and Luke Somers, the British-born American photojournalist who was the raid's target. That lies squarely with the terrorists who seized the two men. Last week, they threatened to execute Somers within three days unless the U.S. met their terms. And early Saturday morning, once they heard the team of U.S., British and Yemeni special forces launch their attack, the terrorists chose to kill both captives.

Nevertheless, they had been prepared to free Korkie, after months of negotiations with Gift of the Givers, a charity working in Yemen, using local tribal leaders as intermediaries. A price of $200,000 had been agreed upon, and tribal leaders had organized a convoy of vehicles to exchange the cash for Korkie.

Here was yet another demonstration that hostages can indeed be freed in exchange for money: Ransom works. Indeed, it is the reason al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorist groups capture civilians in the first place. And because most European governments will pay, the average price secured per hostage has been soaring.

Since 2008, the kidnapping-for-ransom industry has raised as much as $165 million for terrorist organizations, most of it paid by European governments. Those governments routinely deny making the payments, because they know it's bad policy: It encourages further kidnappings, and it funds terrorist operations as well as the slaughter of civilians in the Middle East and Africa. It also contravenes multiple international commitments.

As for the U.S. and U.K. governments that ran the unsuccessful military raid, there are certainly questions as to how they failed to know that Korkie's release was to happen on Saturday, or that he might be with Somers.

But whatever the answers, they are irrelevant to the question of whether governments should ransom their citizens. That calculation remains the same: The only way to end the ransom business is to close the market. 

(Corrects name of charity in fourth paragraph.)

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.