Foley’s Impossible Ransom

by Dish Staff

Before deciding to murder captive American journalist James Foley, ISIS had attempted to extort an enormous ransom from the US government in exchange for his release:

Long before the dark bluster behind ISIL’s rationale for killing an American civilian, there had reportedly been a call for a ransom. Philip Balboni, Foley’s boss at GlobalPost, told The Wall Street Journal that the captors demanded 100 million euros in exchange for Foley’s release. The New York Times reported the figure as $100 million USD, and says the captors also added other demands, including an exchange of prisoners being held by the United States. … Balboni also told WCVB, that the family received an email last week — after the U.S. began its bombing campaign against ISIL — indicating that they were going to kill Foley. That email made no demands and was “full of rage,” making no suggestion that he could be spared with a payment.

This revelation has left some people wondering why the administration was willing to trade with the Taliban for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, but not with ISIS for Foley. Joshua Keating makes the case for why those were the right calls:

As counterterrorism scholar Peter Neumann argued in a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, governments must at times negotiate and even grant concessions to groups it considers to be terrorists. The decision about whether to do so should be made less on the basis of the group’s relative odiousness than on whether such a deal could help stop violence. …

As I argued after the Bergdahl swap, the deal should be seen less in terms of what the U.S. was willing to give up for one soldier than as the Obama administration settling unfinished business before it pulls troops out of Afghanistan and gets out of the business of fighting the Taliban entirely. But a truce, or even a de-escalation of hostility, between the U.S. government and ISIS or any of its former affiliates in al-Qaida is hard to imagine. While the payment of a ransom could secure the release of a prisoner, it can do little beyond that except provide the group with much-needed funding. It would also encourage more kidnappings, both by ISIS and other groups that would be inspired by its example.

Will Saletan agrees that we were right to reject the ransom demand for Foley:

If you pay the ransom, you’re not just fueling the kidnap market. As Slate’s Josh Keating notes, you’re also funding ISIS’s war and its atrocities against civilians. Callimachi found that al-Qaida and its affiliates reaped a minimum of $125 million in ransoms in the last five years, and $66 million just last year. It’s now al-Qaida’s main revenue stream. And the demands won’t end with money. In addition to Sotloff, ISIS reportedly has at least three more American hostages it’s threatening to kill. It also has some Brits. The New York Times says ISIS “has sent a laundry list of demands for the release of the foreigners, starting with money but also prisoner swaps.” Altogether, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, ISIS and other extremists in Syria have about 20 foreign journalists. I fear for those reporters. I’m horrified by Foley’s death, and I know Sotloff is probably next. But we have to think about the next 20 hostages, and the 20 after that. Every time we ransom a reporter, we put a price tag on the next one.

Adam Taylor explores the practices of European countries that do pay ransoms for civilian hostages, and why those decisions are controversial:

In countries that may pay ransoms, there appear to be mixed feelings about the practice: Last year French President François Hollande told families of hostages being held in Africa’s Sahel region that no more ransoms would be paid, though a few months later there were reports in French media of more money paid out. Germany also has questioned its own payments to terrorists. “We need to ask ourselves whether or not we can live with the fact that the money we are paying in ransom for hostages,” a German government security expert said in a 2007 newspaper interview“could be used to buy weapons that could kill our soldiers in Afghanistan.” Countries where hostages are taken have sometimes complained about ransoms, too. “Yemen constantly rejects handling the release of kidnapped hostages through the payment of ransoms to kidnappers,” Yemen’s foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, said in an interview with Saudi Arabia’s Asharq al-Aswat newspaper last year. “We do not want this conduct to expose many foreigners in Yemen to abduction as other kidnappers would seek to receive a ransom,” Qirbi explained.

Gary Sick offers his take in an interview with the Wire:

[A] live hostage is actually worth something. A dead hostage is really not worth anything. If they kill the second hostage, which they have suggested that’s what they’re going to do, they just lost the last of their bargaining effort. They have to ask themselves what they’re going to do. … I would say, in a cold-blooded way, that the second hostage’s value has gone up in their eyes unless they think something really significant could come from it. If they kill him and the bombing goes on, they’ve lost it.

Although this is all done with great bravado, I remember my good friend Danny Pearl, he was at the Wall Street Journal and al-Qaeda beheaded and killed him. One man was already hung for that. Another has admitted he carried out the beheading. If he ever comes to trial, he will be sentenced to death. Eventually, and it might be surprising, justice does catch up with these guys, and it is clearly a war crime. Killing an innocent civilian you are holding as a hostage is a war crime, period. If they ever get captured, they will be interrogated and they’re likely to be hanged for it. Now, in battle, they don’t think on it.