African terrorist groups have learned that kidnapping pays. Leaders of the Group of Eight (G-8) countries made a commitment not to pay ransoms when they discussed the issue in Northern Ireland Tuesday.
Terrorist groups have kidnapped more than 150 foreign nationals since 2008 and at least $60 million in ransom has been paid, according to the U.K. Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism.
At a press briefing ahead of discussions, British Prime Minister David Cameron said according to a transcript: “I want us to discuss how we crack down on terrorist ransoms because this would suffocate one of the main sources of funding for these terrorist organizations, and of course would reduce the incentive to take our citizens hostage.”
But even though the countries agreed Tuesday not to pay ransoms, it may prove difficult to stymie the flow of cash and favors to kidnappers. When a government is under pressure to save a hostage’s life, it remains to be seen whether it will hold to its commitment.
France, for example, has said in past kidnapping cases that it did not negotiate the hostages’ releases—but the ransom payments in some form or another eventually came to light, said Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Same goes for Italy, Canada, and others, according to media reports in those countries.
“Can you get everyone on board?” he asked in a telephone interview with the Epoch Times on Tuesday. “If one country in Europe starts paying and the others don’t, you still have a kidnapping problem.”
He noted that France’s leniency on this issue has led it to fund through ransom money the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) terrorist group in Mali that it is now fighting.
On Tuesday G-8 countries that committed to ending ransom payments included France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the United States.
The United States has taken a hard-line stance Watts said is exemplary.
He said by not allowing ransoms to be paid for American hostages, it is much less likely Americans will be kidnapped. He also notes that Americans are generally clear on this, and thus take the dangers more seriously.
“American citizens know that if they go out into the Sahara and they get kidnapped, they will likely die,” Watts said. He noted that other countries may hesitate to take such a stance due in part to business interests in Africa. Companies want to assure the safety of their traveling businessmen.
In the U.K., paying ransom to kidnappers can be considered an insurable business loss, said Peter Chalk, a senior political scientist at the global policy think tank RAND Corporation. The nature of the kidnappers makes all the difference.
“You can make a legal case for paying ransoms, but you have to also have a case that the group you’re working with is not a terrorist group,” he said.
Award-winning veteran national security journalist Josh Meyer wrote in an article for Quartz published Wednesday: “Abductors are often a motley crew of traffickers, thugs, and militants, which is likely to complicate the enforcement of a ‘counter-terrorism’ agreement. That’s especially true of the G-8 countries, which can’t seem to agree on who is a terrorist.”
Chalk explained that security forces hired by multinational extraction companies in Africa are often complicit in the kidnappings; they pocket a portion of the ransom. Businesses entering Africa are often under obligation by the host countries to use local security forces, “and that has become a sticking point in negotiations of extraction agreements [with the host countries],” Chalk said.
Companies want to either bring their own security, or vet local forces.
Professional negotiators are often hired by these extraction companies, and also by the families of the hostages. Control Risk is one such “global risk consultancy” firm, as described on its website.
Most of these companies operate out of the U.K., Chalk said.
While mining companies may have robust security systems in place, nongovernmental organization workers often have considerably less protection.
“By virtue of their work, they are in dangerous areas,” Chalk said. They end up in confinement for extended periods of time, he said, and if the workers are locals, they are even less likely to get any help.