Foley’s beheading reopens debate on ransoms

Foley’s beheading by ISIS intensified a debate within the Obama administration about whether to pay ransoms to radical groups

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The United States rejecting demands for a nine-digit payment to save kidnapped American journalist James Foley has opened debate if it should continue upholding such policy, the Associated Press reported Friday.

The U.S. argues that paying ransoms only encourages more hostage-taking.

“We do not make concessions to terrorists. That includes: We do not pay ransoms,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Thursday. Such payouts, she added, would only serve to “fund and finance exactly the groups (whose capabilities) we are trying to degrade.”

“And so we believe very strongly that we don’t do that, for that reason.”

Foley’s beheading by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist group intensified a debate within the Obama administration and with American allies abroad about whether to pay ransoms to al-Qaeda and other organizations, at the risk of encouraging more abductions and funding militancy.

For al-Qaeda and some other militant bands, ransoms paid to free kidnapped Europeans over the past 10 years have surpassed donations from private supporters as a source of funding, according to the United States and Britain. The British government, like the U.S., adheres to a longstanding policy against paying ransoms to extremists.

Foley’s ISIS captors had demanded $132.5 million (100 million euros) from his parents and political concessions from Washington. Neither obliged, authorities say.

The ISIS also demanded a $132.5 million ransom each for two other American hostages the militants are holding, according to a person close to the situation who spoke late Thursday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the information by name. The demand to the families of each hostage came only once, late last year.

ISIS’ letter to the Foley family

In an email to Foley’s family prior to his death, the extremist group said: “you were given many chances to negotiate the release of your people via cash transactions as other governments have accepted…however you proved very quickly to us that this is NOT what you are interested in.”

The ISIS has sent Foley’s family an email titled “HOW LONG WILL THE SHEEP FOLLOW THE BLIND SHEPPARD?” Read full text in GlobalPost website.

GlobalPost said it released the full text of the email from ISIS militants “in the interest of transparency and to fully tell Jim’s story.”

“We believe the text offers insight into the motivations and tactics of the Islamic State,” it added.

The email from ISIS also claims that “other governments” had accepted “cash transactions” for the release of hostages and says that the militants had offered prisoner exchanges for Foley’s freedom, naming Aafia Siddiqui, the scientist jailed for 86 years for attempting to murder U.S. military officers.

However, prior to disclosing the email, GlobalPost CEO Philip Balboni said the captors made contact with GlobalPost and the Foley family fewer than half a dozen times, and “the kidnappers never really negotiated” over their huge sum, but simply made their demand.

“We never took the 100 million (euro) figure seriously,” Balboni told CNN.

Balboni referred to the release of several European hostages by the extremist group earlier this year, likely upon payment of ransoms that were “dramatically less” than what the group sought for Foley.

Securing funds

Foley, 40, a freelance journalist from New Hampshire, was killed within the past week inside Syria, where he had been held since his disappearance there in November 2012. Extremists revealed his death in a video released Tuesday showing his beheading.

Extremists said they killed Foley in retaliation for what by Thursday were 90 U.S. airstrikes since Aug. 8 targeting ISIS positions in northern Iraq. But the ransom demands began late last year, even before the ISIS, one of the world’s most financially prosperous extremist groups, had begun its brutal march across much of western and northern Iraq.

Whether or not it was their primary motive in killing the freelance reporter, the ISIS militants, already savvy self-promoters on Twitter and in slickly produced videos, since then have moved squarely to the front of the U.S. agenda and international attention, said Matthew Levitt, a counterterror expert at the Washington Institute think-tank.

It’s “the kind of coverage you can’t really buy,” Levitt said. “From their perspective, this has been a tremendous success.”

A senior Obama administration official said Thursday the ISIS had made a “range of requests” from the U.S. for Foley’s release, including changes in American policy and posture in the Mideast.

No-ransom policy

The USA Patriot Act prohibits any payment or assistance to terror groups that could boost their support. The families of three Americans held by a rebel group in Colombia for five years, for example, were repeatedly advised against sending even medication and sneakers to the hostages to avoid potentially breaking the law.

But prosecution in those types of cases is rare and enforced haphazardly. “I never saw, in my time as an FBI agent, where the U.S. government threatened to prosecute a family for paying a ransom,” said Clinton Van Zandt, the FBI’s former chief hostage negotiator.

“You may get that person back that time, but what you’ve done is put a price tag on the head of every American overseas,” he said. “And you’ve advertised that we pay to get Americans back.”

Other state policy

European governments, in particular, cite more domestic pressure than felt in the U.S. to free kidnapped nationals, even by ransoms. Qatar, a small Arab Gulf country that often seeks a regional and international role as a mediator, also has interceded in paying or helping to arrange payment for Western governments, U.S. and British officials say.

In January, the U.S. and Britain secured a U.N. Security Council resolution appealing to governments not to pay ransom to terror groups. The Group of Eight, a bloc of some of the world’s most developed economies, made the same pledge a year ago, also under U.S. and British pressure.

The U.S. Treasury Department has estimated at least $140 million worth of ransoms have been paid to al-Qaida and other terror groups in Africa and the Mideast since 2004.

France, the country most frequently accused of paying ransoms, has denied doing so, as have Germany, Italy, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. All are accused by security experts, diplomats and others of having paid or helped arrange ransoms.

Prisoner exchange

Despite its insistence that it does not make concessions to terrorists, the U.S. did just that earlier this year in securing the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban, critics say. In exchange for Bergdahl, the Obama administration released Taliban prisoners from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including some whom critics called among the most hardened terrorists.

Rather than pay ransoms, the United States often tries to rescue its hostages with covert military teams trained to raid extremist camps.

And a secret operation was launched in early July to rescue Foley and other U.S. hostages being held by ISIS in Syria. U.S. special forces engaged in a firefight with ISIS, and killed several militants, but did not find any American hostages at the unspecified location.

At least three Americans are still being held in Syria. Two of them are believed to have been kidnapped by the ISIS. The third, freelance journalist Austin Tice, disappeared in Syria in August 2012 and is believed to be in the custody of Syrian government forces.

(With Associated Press and AFP)

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