World News

12.22.13

Al Qaeda Growing Rich Off Ransom Payments

As the British government urges the UN to crack down on ransoms to terrorist groups, jihadists in the Maghreb are upping their hostage prices.

Al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and the Middle East are increasingly funding themselves from ransom payments, which now average over $5 million when it comes to the going rate for the release of a Western hostage in the Sahara. And the problem of kidnapping is only going to worsen unless Western governments, businesses and non-profits observe a ban on paying up, say British officials.

In the past three years, jihadists groups linked to al-Qaeda and other radicals have raked in at least $70 million in ransom money—and with each year, the average financial demand from abductors has jumped, according to the British Foreign Office. A year ago, the average ransom paid in exchange for a Western hostage in the Sahara was $4 million—up from $2 million a couple of years before that.

Jihadist kidnapping is on the rise across North Africa, Yemen and Nigeria, British officials say, and has skyrocketed in the last year in Syria, where more than 30 journalists have been abducted as well as several civil-society and aid workers.

With more jihadist groups emerging in the region and with al-Qaeda affiliates multiplying, British officials are now pushing a draft resolution at the United Nations to remind member states of their obligation to uphold and abide by bans on extortion money. “Paying ransoms fuels the problem and increases the risk of kidnapping,” says a British spokesman for the UK delegation to the UN.

“It is providing windfalls for the terrorists. There are a lot of smoke and mirrors involved with the denials by governments that they don’t pay.”

But security industry insiders say that though the 15-member Security Council  is bound to adopt the UK resolution, most countries will continue to pay for the release of nationals, or allow their corporations and NGOs to do so.

“They can talk all they like at the UN but the French, the Italians and the Poles among others will cough up,” says an American private security consultant who has been involved in hostage negotiations this year in Syria. “Everyone knows it is a bad idea and they say they don’t do it but everyone apart from the Americans and the British will persist in dropping cash from helicopters over the Sahara or transporting suitcases stuffed with money across the Turkish border into Syria.”

A UN resolution adopted after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks banned countries from financing terrorism, including through ransoms for their kidnapped citizens. And in the summer at the G8 Summit held in Northern Ireland, the leaders of the top eight industrial nations expressed alarm at “the increasingly fragmented and geographically diverse threat posed by terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and its affiliates,” and at “the threat posed by kidnapping for ransom by terrorists,” as they said in an official communiqué. They also rejected “unequivocally…the payment of ransoms to terrorists”

“Payments to terrorists from Sahel to the Horn of Africa helped fuel instability in the region, and contributed to large scale attacks,” the G8 leaders said in the communiqué, which warned that ransom money helps jihadists recruit and improve their operational capabilities. The leaders of France, Italy, Canada and Germany all endorsed the no-ransom agreement but all those countries have paid out ransoms for their kidnapped citizens or provided tacit approval for payments made by businesses and NGOs—perhaps since the G8 summit—say diplomats and security industry insiders.

The British draft resolution is a follow-up to the G8 communiqué.

Payments recently have included $22 million to Al Qaeda in Yemen for the release of Swiss, Austrian and Finnish hostages. French newspaper Le Monde claimed in Octoberthat France paid Al Qaeda in the Maghreb $34 million in exchange for four Frenchmen who had been held captive for three years after being seized from a uranium mine operated by French nuclear company Areva in the northern Nigerian desert town of Arlit.

At a ceremony to greet the freed men at an airport south of Paris, French President François Hollande said their return was a moment of “immense joy.” One of the hostages didn’t at first notice the French leader and fell weeping into the arms of his wife and two daughters. Speaking on French television, the country’s defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, insisted that no ransom had been forthcoming and the hostages’ employer Areva also was adamant it had paid no money to AQIM.

In January, Hollande said unlike his predecessors in the Elysée Palace he had adopted a no-ransom policy.

Last April, a leaked confidential Nigerian government report noted that $3.15 million had been paid to the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram for the freeing of a family of seven French hostages in April. Cameroon released several Boko Haram detainees to sweeten the deal. The report did not detail who had exactly paid the money. The French government denied any involvement in a ransom payment and Nigerian officials declined to comment after the report had been leaked.

The U.S. adopted a no-ransom policy back in the Nixon presidency. The only breach came with Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra deals for the return of American hostages held in Lebanon. Britain’s no-concessions policy dates back to the 1970s.

“There has been a noticeable uptick in hostage-taking since the early 2000s,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast expert with the Washington DC-based think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “And it is providing windfalls for the terrorists. There are a lot of smoke and mirrors involved with the denials by governments that they don’t pay.”

For governments, though, a powerful political and PR dynamic comes into play when their citizens are held hostage and their plight displayed publicly on videos uploaded on YouTube and other social media sites. Failure to secure their quick release can erode voter confidence and advertise the impotence of government.

Critics of the U.S. and British hardline position say that while withholding ransoms denies terrorist organizations funding, it doesn’t deter jihadists from seizing Americans and Britons. “Americans and Britons still get kidnapped,” says a private security adviser. It can also seal their fate. In 2009, four European tourists were seized in Mali and three of them—two Swiss and a German—were freed after $2.8 million was paid. The Briton, Edwin Dyer, was murdered.