In Depth

Islamic State: should UK pay ransom for British hostage?

Deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff highlight different responses to kidnappers in the West

Prime Minister David Cameron has refused to make a ransom payment to save a British hostage whose life is under threat from Islamic State jihadists. Like the United States, Cameron insists that the UK does not pay ransoms and has accused other countries that are willing to do so of fuelling terrorism.

The results of the US policy can be seen in the two harrowing videos of James Foley and Steven Sotloff being apparently beheaded by a masked jihadist. Foley's family confirmed that his captors had demanded a ransom of $132m, which the US refused to pay. Yet his European colleagues held by the same group were released just months earlier after their governments allegedly paid to set them free.

Last year G8 leaders signed a policy statement acknowledging that ransoms incentivised future kidnappings thereby increasing the risks to their citizens. But only the US and UK appear to have stuck to the agreement – with the US even launching prosecutions for funding terrorism against organisations who try to pay ransoms for their employees.

In the Daily Telegraph, David Blair says that the French, Italian and Spanish governments, along with others in Continental Europe, have "a long record of directly paying ransoms".

While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by the New York Times found that al-Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125m in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66m was paid last year alone.

"Of course, for the families and friends of hostages, bringing back their loved ones is deemed worth any price," says Adjoa Anyimadu in The Guardian. She points out that rescue missions are not always successful and some countries do not have the military power required to even attempt one.

But William Saletan, writing in Slate, says the problem goes beyond just incentivising hostage takers. "If you pay a ransom, you're not just fuelling the kidnap market," he says. "You're also funding Isis's war and its atrocities against civilians."

David Rohde, a former Taliban hostage writing for Reuters, says Foley's execution was a "chilling wake-up call" for American and European policy-makers about their "vastly different" responses to kidnappings. Rohde, who eventually escaped from captivity, says: "One clear lesson that has emerged in recent years is that security threats are more effectively countered by united American and European action... The current haphazard approach is failing."

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