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Why the US wouldn't pay ransom to save James Foley from ISIS

James Foley in Syria, 2012.
James Foley in Syria, 2012.
(Nicole Tung/Free James Foley)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

A September 12 ABC News story made a pretty big allegation: that the US government threatened the family of James Foley, one of the two American journalists murdered by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to ABC, which quotes Foley's mother and brother as well as US government sources, "Obama administration officials repeatedly threatened the family of murdered journalist James Foley that they might face criminal charges for supporting terrorism if they paid ransom."

The allegations have became a major source of criticism for the administration. On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough went on Fox News to defend the administration's conduct, saying "We didn't threaten anybody, but we made clear what the law is. That's our responsibility to make sure we explain the law and uphold the law."

It's true that US law prohibits giving money or support to designated terrorist groups, but, according to Voice of America, "no individual or company has been subjected to legal sanctions because of paying ransom to terrorist organizations in exchange for a family member or employee." But it's also true that the US opposes paying ransoms for kidnapped Americans, even if it usually doesn't prosecute people who pay them. Here's why:

Ransoms fund terrorism

anti-american fighters iraq 2006 Menendj

Anti-American Iraqi insurgents in 2006. (Menendj)

This is, of course, the obvious point. When you pay terrorists money or release imprisoned operatives in exchange for a citizens, a terrorist group gets something it wants. Hostage-taking and ransom payments are incredibly important to the international Islamist terrorist movement.

In a July investigation, the New York Times' Rukmini Callimachi uncovered clear evidence that several European governments, unlike the United States, had a policy of paying ransom demands. According to Callimachi, "Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year."

European governments naturally deny all of this, but Callimachi's evidence, including direct quotes from officials and internal al-Qaeda documents, is pretty damning.

The $125 million figure is even scarier than it seems on paper. "Counterterrorism officials now believe [al-Qaeda] finances the bulk of its recruitment, training and arms purchases from ransoms paid to free Europeans," Callimachi reports. "Put more bluntly, Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of Al Qaeda."

And paying the ransom may be counterproductive

US navy hostage training

US Navy personnel practice hostage-rescue missions. (Matthew D. Leistikow/US Navy)

Paying ransoms also tends to backfire: once a ransom gets paid, the terrorist group has an incentive to take more hostages from your country. After all, if they got what they wanted from a government the first time, why wouldn't it pay up again?

There's pretty good empirical evidence behind this theory. Patrick Brandt and Todd Sandler, professors at the University of Texas at Dallas, examined a dataset of 1941 terrorist kidnappings from 1965 through 2005. One of the questions they looked at was whether paying ransoms made future kidnappings more likely.

It did. "Past concessions have the strongest impact on generating future kidnapping events, supporting the conventional wisdom to abide by a stated no-concession policy," they write. Specifically, "each successful negotiation results on average in 2.62 additional abductions over time."

So if a country's goal is to prevent its citizens from being kidnapped by terrorist groups, the smartest thing to do is to set a policy that you won't pay ransoms. The more terrorist groups think you'll pay up, the more likely they are to abduct your people.

This is all cold comfort to the Foley family

james foley

James Foley in a television interview in 2011. (Green Cardamom/CNN)

In Foley's case, it's not clear that there was a ransom that Foley's family could have paid: after ISIS murdered Foley, the group threatened to kill another captured journalist, Steven Sotloff, unless the US stopped bombing in Iraq (a threat ISIS horribly followed through on). If ISIS' ransom demand was an end to the war, then Foley's family couldn't have delivered.

So for all that its policy made sense, the US government may have been implicitly threatening a family over a ransom possibility that was hypothetical at best. And the larger implications of paying a ransom to terrorists probably didn't mean a lot to the Foley family while their loved one was imprisoned by a vicious group. A policy against paying ransoms makes sense — but making the family of a captured journalist feel like criminals does not.