The public slaughter of American journalist James Foley by Islamic State has raised wrenching questions about the U.S. government's long-standing policy of refusing to pay ransoms to terrorists. Yet what really deserves scrutiny is the willingness of European governments to meet such demands.
It's no exaggeration to say that the millions of dollars in ransoms paid to Islamic State effectively subsidized Foley's kidnapping and execution, not to mention the terrorists' swath of death and destruction across Syria and Iraq. If the U.S. and its allies are to defeat Islamic State and other terrorist groups, they will have to reconcile their approaches to the metastasizing threat of kidnapping for ransom.
Its dimensions are sobering: The U.S. Treasury Department has called kidnapping for ransom "today's most significant source of terrorist financing"; ransoms paid to al-Qaeda and its direct affiliates since 2008 amount to about $165 million. A separate accounting by the New York Times put the total for last year alone at $66 million. The willingness of governments to pay for their citizens' release has only upped terrorist demands, with deadly results.
So far, most of the international community has yet to live up to pledges made through the United Nations in 2009 and the Group of Eight in 2013 not to pay ransoms. Two exceptions have been the U.S. and the U.K. Although that stance has resulted in the murder of people such as Foley and Edwin Dyer, a 61-year-old British citizen killed by al-Qaeda in 2009, it has also made U.S. and U.K. citizens less lucrative, and thus less frequent, targets. By contrast, the Times estimates that nations such as France, Austria, Spain and Switzerland account for more than half of those taken captive by al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the past five years.
More ransoms just lead to more kidnappings: This spring, four French and two Spanish journalists were released by Islamic State after their governments paid ransoms through intermediaries. But in recent days, the jihadist group seized four more foreigners near Aleppo: two Italians, a Dane and a Japanese national.
Paying a ransom to a terrorist group will always be tempting, especially to governments that want to be able to reassure their citizens about their safety. But every euro paid to save a hostage's life potentially goes to capture or kill another. That's a recipe for perpetual mayhem.
Unlike the U.S., very few countries are capable of responding to this threat militarily. They may feel they have no alternative but to buy their way out. If they do, they owe full disclosure, not elaborate subterfuges and craven evasions, to their citizens and allies.
Better yet would be for the civilized nations of the world to resolve not to meet such ransom demands, as well as band together to exact a cost on those who make them. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been at the forefront of the fight against terrorist groups identified by the UN. Is it too much to ask that, as champions of collective security, NATO's members swear off ransom payments that serve only to endanger the lives and interests of all its members?
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at email@example.com.