Why America Won’t Pay Ransom to Islamic State

Roundup
tags: ISIS, Ransom



Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present” (Liveright, 2013).

… Why is ISIS only killing American and British hostages though it is believed to have seized at least 23 foreigners from 12 countries? One reason may be that ISIS bears special animus against the two Western countries most active in fighting against it. But also significant is that the U.S. and U.K. refuse to pay ransom to win the release of their nationals. By contrast, ISIS has released French, German, Peruvian, Danish and Spanish nationals, reportedly in return for hefty payments from their governments.

Is it time, then, to rethink the U.S. policy of not paying for hostages? The answer is no, though there is a stronger case for doing so than is commonly realized. “No ransom for hostages” is a sound principle but one that has often been violated. The U.S. has paid ransom for hostages, with mixed results, since the early days of the republic. 

In the 1790s, President George Washington paid for the release of American sailors seized aboard ships by the “ Barbary pirates” of North Africa. One deal with Algiers in 1796 was worth more than $1 million, or one-sixth of the entire federal budget, and resulted in the release of 88 sailors. The Jefferson administration eventually waged war on the pirates but only because they failed to honor agreements and kept taking hostages. Thrifty Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin thought it would be cheaper to pay ransom than raise a costly navy. 


In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt won lasting renown for supposedly standing up to the ransom demands of Moroccan bandit Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, who had kidnapped a wealthy Greek-American named Ion Perdicaris and his stepson from their home in Tangiers. Secretary of State John Hay electrified the nation with a telegram to the sultan of Morocco: “This Government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” Roosevelt sent a naval squadron steaming to Morocco. 

What most people did not realize, and still don’t, is that Roosevelt was not resistant to dealing with the hostage-takers. Quite the opposite: He was threatening Morocco with armed force if it failed to negotiate Perdicaris’s release. The sultan got the message and paid $70,000 to get Perdicaris back…. 




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