Associated Press

An image taken from video posted on an Islamic website shows a blindfolded American hostage kidnapped by an al-Qaida affiliate in Saudi Arabia in 2004. Paul Johnson, 49, was later beheaded. A New York Times investigation has found that some European governments have paid ransoms to free their kidnapped citizens.

Editorial: Paying ransoms to al-Qaida comes with high human cost

Published: Thursday, Jul. 31, 2014 - 12:00 am

Not only are some European governments negotiating with terrorists, they are paying ransoms to free their kidnapped citizens.

That very troubling revelation comes courtesy of a remarkable piece of reporting by Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times. Published Wednesday in The Sacramento Bee, the story details how al-Qaida has turned hostage taking into a global business – one financed by France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and others.

Since 2008, al-Qaida and its direct affiliates reaped at least $125 million from kidnappings, more than half of it paid in just the last year as the going rate for each hostage has jumped, according to the story. These terrorist groups have used the payments as seed money to recruit and train fighters who have launched deadly attacks.

Officially the governments deny they pay ransoms, but The Times’ investigation found they funnel the money through proxies and sometimes disguise it as humanitarian or development aid. The story says the true intent of the payments was revealed through numerous interviews in 10 countries and in thousands of pages of internal al-Qaida documents found by a journalist in Mali last year.

While it’s understandable that governments want their citizens back unharmed, paying off terrorists is problematic to say the least. Some of these countries are already trying to stop citizens from going to Iraq or Syria to fight for militant groups, then returning home battle-hardened and with even more extremist views.

The payments may prevent executions, but they also encourage more hostage-taking. The vast majority of the 53 hostages known to have been kidnapped by al-Qaida in the past five years come from countries that pay ransoms, while only three were Americans.

The United States, of course, does sometimes stray from its official position that it doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. In late May, the Obama administration released five Taliban militants in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive for five years in Afghanistan.

Still, the U.S. and Britain are among the few nations that have refused to pay cash ransoms. That comes at a human cost to those hostages and their loved ones. Except for the lucky few who escape or are rescued by special operations forces, they have been executed or are languishing in horrible conditions.

But the cost could eventually be much higher for those European countries that have, unwittingly or not, helped to finance al-Qaida groups. Giving terrorists the resources to expand only makes them a bigger threat.

How would a government ever explain to its people that its euros paid for the deadly bomb that just exploded?

Read more articles by the Editorial Board



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