Counter-Terrorism: The Impossible Dream


March 6, 2014:   Algeria has taken a lead role in the international effort to make it illegal to pay ransoms to Islamic terrorists. Having suffered from Islamic terrorists for two decades, Algeria has ample evidence that ransoms paid to Islamic terrorists simply leads to more kidnappings and murders. In short, paying ransom in general is counter-productive although each kidnapping is very much a tragedy. Algeria has made a lot of progress in getting African nations to outlaw the payment of ransoms. In making its case Algeria points out that a third of the kidnappings by Islamic terrorists takes place in Africa. It’s no secret that the Islamic terrorists consider large ransoms a major source of income needed to finance more terrorism.  While the logic is impeccable, in practice it’s difficult to stop the ransoms from being paid.

For example in April 2013 someone did pay a $3.15 million ransom to Nigerian Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram to gain the release of a French family (parents, an uncle, and four children aged 5-12) that had been kidnapped in northern Cameroon two months earlier and released when the ransom was delivered. The French and Nigerian government would only say that they paid no ransom to get the family released and that there was no raid involved. Nothing was said about a third-party paying a ransom. Boko Haram has not said why they decided to free their hostages but Boko Haram members are already talking about the large ransom payment. Such ransoms are officially discouraged because they encourage the terrorists and enable groups like Boko Haram to make more attacks and kill more people. Thus these ransoms are “blood money” in the worst sense of the word.

Earlier in 2013 Japanese officials were shown to be offering to pay ransom even though their official policy was not to do so. The January 2013 al Qaeda raid on an Algerian natural gas facility in Algeria left ten Japanese civilians dead and an Algerian officials subsequently mentioned in an interview that Japanese diplomats told him, right after the Islamic terrorists seized the complex (and before they began killing the captured foreigners) that the Japanese government would pay whatever it cost to save the ten Japanese being held by the terrorists. The Algerians policy of not negotiating with terrorists meant that Algerian troops promptly attacked the natural gas complex. Most (29 of 32) of the terrorists were killed, plus one Algerian employee of the facility and 37 foreign workers. The official Japanese response to the Algerian comment was that Japan does not negotiate with terrorists. Most nations now have an official policy of not negotiating with terrorists and not paying ransoms. The terrorists, however, believe that deals can still be made and they are often correct. The important thing is to do it quietly.

American intelligence agencies estimate that Islamic terrorists in North Africa have obtained at least $120 million in ransoms, mostly from European nations, in the last decade. The terrorists have demanded ransoms of over $20 million each for some of their European captives. They always settle for less, although the average in the last few years has been about $5 million per European captive. In a pinch the terrorists will grab a wealthy local but usually only get a few thousand for these and risk starting a blood feud with a powerful tribe or clan. Westerners are preferred. While most of the tourists now stay away, there are still business people and aid workers.

While there is public pressure in Europe to pay ransoms, the governments don't want to because they recognize that the money supports Islamic terrorism and encourages more kidnappings. The African governments oppose paying big ransoms as well because the terrorists do most of their damage locally. To make matters worse, there are multiple Islamic terrorist groups in Africa competing to see who can raise the most cash from European captives. Too often the European nations pay because of the intense political and media pressure to "do something" to rescue the widely publicized captives. This is nothing new in Europe, especially the south, where there have often been informal deals with Islamic terrorists to provide sanctuary or lenient prosecution and early release in return for immunity from terrorist attacks.

All this ransom money has enabled Islamic terrorist organizations to survive and even thrive in North Africa. While driven out of Algeria in the 1990s, the Islamic terrorists have found that money will buy them sanctuary in the dry Sahel (the semi-desert belt below the Sahara Desert). The tribes in this thinly populated region are frequently willing to take in fugitives for a price and are often in rebellion against the local government. This is especially true of the Tuareg tribes who are prominent throughout most of the Sahel. This has led to many alliances between al Qaeda and Tuareg tribes. The ransom money not only bought sanctuary, it bought friendship with many of these tribes and lots of eager young tribesmen joining the terrorists.

In addition to the ransoms, the terrorists have also been handling security and transportation for cocaine (flown in from South America) and other drugs smuggled north to the Mediterranean and then into Europe. The drug gangs pay well for these labor intensive services but not as well as the ransoms. Sometimes Europeans are spotted by the drug smugglers, who call in other Islamic terrorists to make the grab. The Western hostages are the prize, not the pay received for guarding drug shipments.

While the Islamic terrorists talks about religion and righteous indignation, they really keep going with cash. Take away the money and the terrorist organizations shrink to a few armed and angry cranks. Still dangerous but more nuisance than threat.




Article Archive

Counter-Terrorism: Current 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close