Jordan's Right to Negotiate With Terrorists

Every prisoner has a father.

Photographer: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images

The vital principle of not paying ransom to terrorists is too often honored in the breach. Yet Jordan, as it considers a possible hostage-prisoner exchange with Islamic State, should ignore the U.S.'s insistence that the same principle applies, because plainly it doesn't.

Islamic State has offered to exchange a Japanese journalist for a failed suicide bomber who has been imprisoned in Jordan since taking part in an attack that killed more than 50 people in Amman a decade ago. If the Jordanian government didn't comply by sunset today, Islamic State said, it would execute a Jordanian pilot it captured last month in Syria.

That deadline has passed, and it remains unclear what will or has happened. Jordanian officials are in an impossible situation. Many Jordanians oppose their country's participation in the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Islamic State, and the pilot's parents have led a vocal campaign to pressure the government into getting their son back whatever the cost. Japan, meanwhile, is an important donor to Jordan, which needs the aid.

What's more, Jordan's decision will have ramifications beyond Jordan -- a point implicit in a comment from U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who repeated U.S. policy yesterday when asked about the crisis: "We don’t make concessions to terrorists." That's fine for her to say, as the representative of the world's lone superpower. But Jordan's calculus can be different.

A prisoner exchange and a ransom may both be concessions, but they aren't necessarily the same. When Islamic State asked for $200 million in exchange for two Japanese hostages -- one since executed -- Japan rightly declined. That money would encourage and enable Islamic State to take more hostages, and would finance more terrorism.

That's not the case with a hostage or prisoner exchange. And in this particular situation, the value of the person the terrorists are demanding is not high: The convicted would-be suicide bomber is no Osama bin Laden. Even were she to escape Jordan's death row and return to fight with Islamic State, her contribution would probably be minimal.

At any rate, the idea of "no concessions" -- especially in the context of the battlefield, and even to terrorists -- doesn't withstand scrutiny. Israel has been willing to swap large numbers of Hamas and Hezbollah militants for its soldiers, even though Israel is vehement that these are terrorist organizations. The U.S. itself swapped five Taliban members from Guantanamo for a captured U.S. soldier last year.

Finally, there is little danger that a trade will encourage Islamic State to take more hostages. The terrorists will always try to capture as many opposing soldiers as they can. There is little moral hazard here. On both humanitarian and strategic grounds, it makes sense for Jordan to trade an imprisoned terrorist for a foreign journalist -- and to press, and hope, for the release of its captured pilot.

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