It’s significant that in the Western world it is the US and the UK that refuse to pay ransoms, and continental Europe that acquiesces. That’s another example of the Anglo-American link, and the European divergence.
Obama may be yearning to be more like Europe, and determined to lead the US in that direction, but so far he isn’t Europeanized enough to have changed our basic policy on this issue.
In fact, the US position on ransoms is still (at least nominally) even harsher than that of the UK (if this report is correct): the US has a policy, at least on paper, of threatening private companies who ransom employees from terrorists with prosecution for violating the law on funding terrorism. The UK government does not pay ransoms to terrorists, but it does not prosecute or even threaten to prosecute those companies who do.
The governments of continental Europe, however, are the culprits responsible for a great deal of terrorist fund-raising:
The French, Italian and Spanish governments, along with others in Continental Europe, have a long record of directly paying ransoms. These deals have secured the freedom of at least nine captives in Syria alone. Considerable sums are involved: al-Qaeda has made at least $125 million (£75 million) from ransoms since 2008, according to a New York Times investigation. Much of this will have come from European governments. In particular, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa has probably raised most of its funding by selling captives to European countries.
Setting a policy on ransoms to terrorists would seem simple enough in principle, although excruciating in execution. Paying ransom is like appeasement or enabling or both. You buy a moment of peace at the expense of feeding the monster. The short term result is that you get the person back. The long term result is more abductions and more terrorism, and the need to pay ever more ransoms.
That’s the way it would seem. However, when dealing with ISIS, this article by Alexander Hitchens makes an excellent point:
[ISIS] is a group with an ideological and propaganda incentive to brutally slaughter citizens of Western nations, in particular Americans and Britons. They have multiple and very lucrative revenue streams, including the oilfields they now control, and do not require the extra few million dollars gained from a ransom payment. As demonstrated by the blanket media coverage of James Foley’s murder in the West, the propaganda value of killing an American citizen far outweighs the few million dollars they would receive for his ransom. When approaching this dilemma like this, the argument against paying ransoms loses its most important pillar – Isil will kidnap Westerners regardless of the financial incentives involved.
So money isn’t really ISIS’s main motivation; it’s probably almost an afterthought. They why did they ask for money for Foley in the first place, if the propaganda value of a beheading is so high? Were they just messing with the Foleys’ (and Obama’s) minds? The ransom demanded for Foley was so very much higher than previous ones paid to other groups that it doesn’t seem to have been serious; perhaps just a cruel tease on the part of ISIS.
In addition, it is not certain that ISIS has actually accepted ransoms even from European countries:
…[T]he French journalist Nicolas Henin, who was held alongside Foley, was released in April after his own government negotiated his release. French President François Hollande denies any funds or weapons were handed over, but many are justifiably suspicious that Isil would settle for much less.
Hitchens doesn’t seem to know that in the US people can be prosecuted for paying ransoms, because he seems to think US companies sometimes pay them. But as US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said:
…it is illegal for any American citizen to pay ransom to a group, such as the Islamic State, that the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization.
However, would the US really do anything about it if it were to happen? There’s this:
But the next email [to the Foleys] came with a ransom demand: $132 million, or release of several prisoners held by U.S. authorities…The Foleys and GlobalPost began to quietly raise the money, even though the U.S. government has clear policies against giving money to a terrorist organization such as Islamic State, the heavily armed Al Qaeda spinoff that was holding Foley. FBI and other officials, who were given a copy of the emails, did not try to stop them.
“The appropriate arm of government was aware of every action that we took,” Balboni [of GlobalPost] said. “We were never told to stop doing what we were doing.”
But then the captors stopped communicating…
So it’s not clear what the US would have done had the ransom been paid that way.
And have European governments paid ransoms to ISIS, or haven’t they?:
Four French and two Spanish journalists were released by the Islamic State earlier this year, reportedly following ransom payments. It is unclear whether the money was paid by their companies, their governments or their families…Harf said that ransom payments are “one of the main ways ISIL has been funded.”
One would think that, if everyone would stop paying ransoms to terrorists, these kidnappings might cease. But would that actually happen? ISIS might still find it quite useful to kidnap Americans and Europeans in order to release video after video, horrifying us and increasing the pressure on us, and inspiring more jihadis to join the war against us. For that matter, what’s to stop ISIS from murdering a victim after a ransom is paid? I don’t know exactly how that’s usually controlled for in kidnappings, but it would seem particularly difficult to keep ISIS from some sort of deception on that score.
[ADDENDUM: These differences between the US and European countries regarding ransoms (and ransoms from Muslim terrorists, at that) go back to the earliest days of our nation, if you know the history of the US's role in the First Barbary War
The parallels are fascinating:
Barbary corsairs led attacks upon American merchant shipping in an attempt to extort ransom for the lives of captured sailors, and ultimately tribute from the United States to avoid further attacks, much like their standard operating procedure with the various European states. Before the Treaty of Paris, which formalized the United States' independence from Great Britain, U.S. shipping was protected by France during the Revolutionary years under the Treaty of Alliance (1778–83)...As such, piracy against U.S. shipping only began to occur after the end of the American Revolution, when the U.S. government lost its protection under the Treaty of Alliance.
...Spain offered advice to the United States on how to deal with the Barbary States. The advice was to offer tribute to prevent further attacks against merchant ships. The U.S. Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, decided to send envoys to Morocco and Algeria to try to purchase treaties and the freedoms of the captured sailors held by Algeria...
American diplomatic action with Algeria, the other major Barbary Coast state, was much less successful than with Morocco. Algeria began piracy against the U.S. on 25 July 1785 with the capture of the schooner Maria, and Dauphin a week later. All four Barbary Coast states demanded $660,000 each. However, the envoys were given only an allocated budget of $40,000 to achieve peace. Diplomatic talks to reach a reasonable sum for tribute or for the ransom of the captured sailors struggled to make any headway. The crews of Maria and Dauphin remained in captivity for over a decade, and soon were joined by crews of other ships captured by the Barbary States.
In 1795, Algeria came to an agreement that resulted in the release of 115 American sailors they held, at a cost of over $1 million. This amount totaled about one-sixth of the entire U.S. budget, and was demanded as tribute by the Barbary States to prevent further piracy. The continuing demand for tribute ultimately led to the formation of the United States Department of the Navy, founded in 1798 to prevent further attacks upon American shipping and to end the extremely large demands for tribute from the Barbary States...
Jefferson argued that paying tribute would encourage more attacks. Although John Adams agreed with Jefferson, he believed that circumstances forced the U.S. to pay tribute until an adequate navy could be built. The U.S. had just fought an exhausting war, which put the nation deep in debt. Federalist and Anti-Federalist forces argued over the needs of the country and the burden of taxation. Jefferson's own Democratic-Republicans and anti-navalists believed that the future of the country lay in westward expansion, with Atlantic trade threatening to siphon money and energy away from the new nation on useless wars in the Old World. The U.S. paid Algiers the ransom, and continued to pay up to $1 million per year over the next 15 years for the safe passage of American ships or the return of American hostages. A$1 million payment in ransom and tribute to the privateering states would have amounted to approximately 10% of the U.S. government’s annual revenues in 1800.
Jefferson continued to argue for cessation of the tribute, with rising support from George Washington and others. With the recommissioning of the American navy in 1794 and the resulting increased firepower on the seas, it became increasingly possible for America to refuse paying tribute, although by now the long-standing habit was hard to overturn.
Go to the link for the rest if you’re unfamiliar with it. Let’s just say that when Jefferson finally became president, he decided enough was enough, and he won the war. That didn’t settle the problem, though; it took the Second Barbary War of 1815 to finish the job.]
[ADDENDUM II: From the link on the First Barbary War:
In March 1785, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli's envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman (or Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja). When they enquired "concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury", the ambassador replied:
"It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy's ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once."
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.]