On 16 October, 21 schoolgirls were returned to their families in northern Nigeria. They had been amongst 300 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April 2014 from a school in Chibok.
The Nigerian government denies paying a ransom, but rumours abound that the girls were released either in exchange for Islamic extremist commanders, or for a hefty fee.
Onlookers would have to be particularly hard-hearted not to rejoice at the return of the Chibok girls. Yet, if the price paid was the strengthening of a terrorist organisation, the authorities will arguably have made society more dangerous. Does paying ransoms cost more lives than it saves?
Policy and reality
Officially many governments do not pay ransoms to kidnappers. Multinational agreements forged in the UN in 2008 and 2014, and the G8 in 2013, bind signatory countries to refusing to pay ransoms to terrorist organisations. Despite these agreements, many countries, notably in Europe, continue to pay up.
It is not just governments that pay ransoms. Families raise the money themselves. Companies routinely pay for the release of employees. In 2014, a report estimated that 75% of Fortune 500 companies held kidnap insurance policies. A number of security firms will negotiate within legal constraints to secure the release of hostages.
The consequences of not paying are terrifying. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau did not face an easy task in justifying the non-payment of a ransom when a video of Robert Hall being executed by Abu Sayyaf was released in June, and many leaders have shown that they do not have the stomach for it.
Derek Baldwin, Director, Worldwide Operations, at IBIS Corporation, says “if you don’t pay up, the hostage will come back in pieces”.
Baldwin neatly articulates the dilemma faced by those involved in negotiations for the release of hostages “I find the idea of funding terrorists and criminals, morally repugnant,” he says “but when it is your loved one chained up in a cellar, the situation feels different”.
Obtaining statistics on ransom payments is not straightforward because of the veil of deniability erected by all concerned. A 2003 ransom paid by the German government was disguised as humanitarian aid to Mali. A ransom for the 21 Chibok schoolgirls was allegedly paid by the Swiss government against a later repatriation of funds to Nigeria.
Paying ransoms may increase the risk of kidnapping for others in future. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, cites the 2008 kidnapping of two Italian aid workers in Somalia. A ransom approaching $1 million was paid by their government for their release and Italian citizens were advised to avoid Somalia.
When the same group wanted to raise more funds later that year, they travelled to Kenya to snatch two Italian nuns, whom they transported back to Somalia. The Italian government again paid up.
“Why leave the country when there were plenty of foreign workers in Somalia to choose from?” asks Pham: “They knew that the Italians would pay.”
The broader societal risks of kidnap are more worrying still. A 2014 investigation by the New York Times found that between 2008 and 2014 Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates took $125 million in revenue from kidnappings.
Nasser al-Wuhayshi, one-time leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, described kidnapping as “an easy spoil” and “a profitable trade”. If the West is under attack from terrorists, it is, at least in part, funding the terror.
However, kidnappers play on the emotional, and not the logical. If a life is priceless than it is worth paying a ransom, whatever the future cost may be.