Why the G8 pact to stop paying terrorist ransoms probably won’t work—and isn’t even such a great idea

François Hollande welcomes released hostages—but did he pay for their return?
François Hollande welcomes released hostages—but did he pay for their return?
Image: AP Photo/Thomas Samson
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G8 leaders agreed yesterday (June 18) to get their governments to stop paying ransoms to “terrorist kidnappers.” British prime minister David Cameron, who led the effort, called on private companies to do the same. A Cameron spokesman said the agreement was “very strong.”

That sounds good on paper. But it probably won’t work very well out there in the real world. Here’s why.

First, there’s the definition of terrorists. Kidnappings and hostage taking have been on the rise in large swaths of the world, especially North Africa, because they’re so lucrative. But the 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 G8 countries, which can’t seem to agree on who is a terrorist. (See: Hezbollah.) The G8 has tried to come up with a plan to counter kidnapping and hostage-taking before, in 2005 and 2006. But the plan ultimately went nowhere because the countries wouldn’t agree on key ground rules such as the sharing of information on victims, payments, and operational details of rescue operations.

Second, there’s all the money at stake. Globally, Islamist groups have kidnapped more than 150 foreign nationals since 2008, and at least $60 million in ransom was paid, according to the UK’s Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism. Cameron said he decided to raise the issue at the G8 summit after Algeria’s hostage crisis in January, where at least 40 hostages were killed during a standoff at a desert natural gas facility. And that was only the latest of a string of incidents. Terrorism experts Quartz spoke to say kidnappings and hostage taking have become such a lucrative cottage industry that they’re not going to stop, whatever kind of fancy agreement the G8 nations come up with.

Third, political reality means an accord is likely to go out the window with the first hostage-taking. The United States, Britain and Canada have all, to some degree, refused to pay ransoms in some high-profile cases. But Christopher Voss, who was the FBI’s lead international hostage negotiator from 2003 to 2007, is skeptical of the other G8 countries’ abilities to abide by such an agreement.

“Italy pays, France pays, Germany pays,” says Voss, who now works for multinationals on hostage/kidnap/ransom and other issues as CEO of the Black Swan Group. ”They say they won’t [pay] until it’s them in the crosshairs. And then they pay.” Why pledge one thing and do another? “They become horrified of the consequences of doing nothing and having a citizen dying,” Voss told Quartz. They also get a lot of behind-the-scenes pressure, from families or corporations, to get them to pay, he says. (Last April seven French hostages were released after a two-month ordeal in Cameroon. France denied paying a ransom, but a Nigerian government report claimed that Nigerian Islamic militants had received $3 million and other concessions.)

And fourth, it’s just bad tactics.  Voss says governments lose a lot of leverage when they refuse to engage captors. The best way to deal with hostage situations and kidnappings, by far, he said, is to begin negotiations with the perpetrators to find out more information about them. Then you set up a very tightly controlled ransom payoff (marked bills, good surveillance), and either use that as a ruse to rescue the captives, or to follow the money back to the kidnappers and broader criminal organizations and take down the entire structure.

“The only way to fight kidnapping is to be willing to treat it like a sting operation,” Voss says. “Someone has to show up and pick up the money and then give it back to the criminal enterprise and then it will be distributed. And so you follow all of it. It is an incredibly fruitful trail of evidence.”