The U.S.A. Needs to Rethink its KFR Policy

Sticking to its policy on Kidnapping for Ransom (KFR), the U.S. Government faces an unnerving dilemma: does saving an American life today offset risking to lose more in the future? Although this might sound like a cynical oversimplification, the answer of the U.S. Government is: no. In fact, the idea that ransoms enable criminal groups to fund their operations and in turn threaten the United States is what motivates the U.S. Government not to pay. The second argument that supports this policy is the belief that paying ransoms sparks a vicious circle where ransoms lead to more kidnappings. The U.S. Government needs to rethink its KFR policy because these arguments are not as solid as they seem.
The idea that refusing to pay ransoms prevents American citizens from being kidnapped is a myth. The fact that radical Islamist groups capture Americans even though they are aware of the U.S.A.’s no-ransom policy demonstrates that the motivation of the crime is political, not economic. Simply put, the prospect of not obtaining a ransom is not a sufficient deterrent for radical Islamists. Moreover, kidnappings often happen due to tactical and operational windows of opportunity that terrorist groups identify and exploit, as opposed to the nationality of the victim. Accordingly, data reveal no proof that a no-ransom policy decreases the probability that citizens are captured. The 225 Americans kidnapped since 2001 account for a striking 20% of the total seized citizens from 32 different Western countries, almost all of which pay ransoms. Moreover, we lack evidence on the fact that American aid workers and journalists operating in high-risk areas are more numerous than those coming from other countries in a statistically significant way. This mitigates the risk of self-selection in the interpretation of the abovementioned data.

Even worse, this policy dooms the Government to wait for the worst outcome impotently. Of the 90 hostages from 32 Western countries killed since 2001, 41 were Americans. In other words, due to the current policy, abducted Americans have about a 50% chance to die at the hands of their persecutors. Asking whether the U.S.A. would be less secure today due to the payment of those 41 ransoms is a vague counterfactual, whereas it is almost statistically certain that paying the ransoms would have saved 41 American lives.

The other reason underpinning the current U.S. KFR policy is that ransoms contribute to the funding of the terrorists’ operations. Although this is indisputably true, the impact of ransoms on the finances of terrorist groups is overestimated. Since ransoms are paid occasionally and not in a systematic way, they are not a strategic source of revenue for most terrorist organizations. For example, ransoms represent a very small share of ISIS’ total revenues, as the group has access to large oil reserves and taxes the population and the commercial activities in the territory under its control. Thus, it is unlikely that a ransom would substantially upgrade the group’s operational capabilities.

The need for re-adjusting the policy is even more evident if we consider that there are no other valid alternatives to rescue American citizens that happen to be captured. Deploying specialized military personnel to exfiltrate a hostage is rarely feasible due to tactical constraints and information gaps. Moreover, even when viable, this option implies enormous risks both for the military personnel and the hostage. Also, relying on intermediaries to pay ransoms, the U.S. Government distances itself from the terrorists but also undermines its credibility. In fact, it is straightforward that the American administration would have to compensate its intermediaries in some way, which equals paying the ransom indirectly and eluding its policy with a trick.

Because of the abovementioned reasons, the U.S. Government should adopt a more flexible KFR policy. Indeed, a new policy should not favor the indiscriminate payment of all ransoms. For example, the terrorist organization Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb derives the largest shares of its revenues from ransoms, thus paying a ransom to it would contribute substantially to the group’s operations. However, American society needs a law that does not exclude paying ransoms a priori and allows to implement the best response on a case-by-case basis.  


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