Since well before 9/11, the United States and other nations have worked hard to cut off the flow of money to Al Qaeda and related terrorist groups.
Through innovative approaches and strong partnerships, including with many European nations and the European Union, we have had real success in our counterterrorism efforts broadly and in our specific efforts to combat the flow of funds to terrorist organizations.
In particular, Al Qaeda’s senior leadership in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region has seen its funds dwindle.
In recent years, however, the Qaeda network has found new deep pockets, not among rich radical sheikhs in the Persian Gulf but through the exploitation of wealthy Western countries and their allies. By turning the kidnapping of Europeans, East Asians and North Americans into big business, terrorist organizations have found a reliable funding stream that runs directly from the coffers of countries that are dedicated to defeating Al Qaeda.
It is time to block this flow of funding before it swells and strengthens the Qaeda network. Governments need to get out of the business of paying ransoms or they will face many more kidnappings and an intensified wave of terrorism.
The ransom amounts involved are significant. Since 2004, terrorists groups from the Sahel region to the Horn of Africa and from Yemen to East Asia have taken in roughly $120 million dollars in ransom payments, much of it money paid by governments.
From 2003 to 2008, kidnappings in Afghanistan increased tenfold, with 38 known cases in 2008. Improved security on the ground has resulted in fewer kidnappings in 2009, but the threat remains high. In Somalia, al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups routinely seize foreign aid workers and others as hostages, in one case receiving a $1.3 million ransom payment from a nongovernmental organization.
No group has made a bigger name for itself in the kidnapping-for-ransom business than Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM.). AQIM relies on ransom payments to sustain and develop itself in the harsh Saharan environment. It appears certain that these payments represent the majority of the Saharan-based group’s income.
The number of kidnappings by organized-crime groups in Western Africa has also skyrocketed in the last few years. Increasingly, criminals and terrorists are joining forces, with local thugs operating kidnapping rings and selling the hostages to terrorist groups.
For governments trying to beat back terrorist cells within their borders, the kidnappings have become a plague, and, understandably, they blame wealthier countries for aggravating the problem by paying ransoms, which effectively invite the terrorists to come back for more.
Something must be done to help countries such as Mali, Algeria, and Mauritania, and to prevent groups like AQIM from acquiring the resources to begin operating in new places. Agreement to a “no-concessions” policy would be a good place to start. Currently only a few governments refuse to pay ransom for kidnapped citizens, and the frequency of their nationals being abducted has declined.
The United States understands a refusal to make concessions to terrorists carries real costs, as do countries like France, which took a brave decision to try to free its citizens in Niger.
Widespread adherence to a no-concessions pledge alone will not eliminate the problem of kidnapping-for-ransom: Private companies and NGOs will likely continue to pay ransoms to get their people back. But if at least governments stop paying, it will help disrupt the operations of terrorist organizations.
With this commitment, coupled with vigorous efforts by law enforcement, intelligence and security forces to capture kidnappers, disrupt their networks, and freeze or seize their finances, hostage-taking will ultimately become a much less attractive line of work.
Daniel Benajmin, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department.