Did America’s policy on ransom contribute to James Foley’s killing?

August 20, 2014


James Foley, Aleppo, Syria - 08/12

Somewhere in the desert of eastern Syria, a militant from the Islamic State beheaded the American journalist James Foley this week. The killer and his terrorist group are responsible for Foley’s death. They should be the focus of public anger.

But Foley’s execution is also a chilling wake-up call for American and European policymakers, as well as U.S. news outlets and aid organizations. It is the clearest evidence yet of how vastly different responses to kidnappings by U.S. and European governments save European hostages but can doom the Americans. Hostages and their families realize this fully — even if the public does not.

“I wish I could have the hope of freedom and seeing my family once again, but that ship has sailed,” Foley said moments before he was killed in a craven video released by the militant group on Tuesday. “I guess, all in all, I wish I wasn’t American.”

French journalist Nicolas Henin is cheered by relatives as he arrives by helicopter from Evreux to the military airbase in VillacoublayFoley clearly spoke under duress. But his regret at being an American captive, real or not, reflected grim fact.

This spring, four French and two Spanish journalists held hostage by the Islamic State extremists were freed — after the French and Spanish governments paid ransoms through intermediaries.

The U.S. government refused to negotiate or pay a ransom in Foley’s case or for any other American captives — including my own abduction by the Taliban five years ago.

With the help of an Afghan journalist abducted with me, I was lucky enough to  escape. But today Foley is dead and the Islamic State militants now say Steven Sotloff, a journalist for Time magazine whom the group also captured, will be killed if the United States does not stop bombing its fighters in Iraq.

There are no easy answers in kidnapping cases. The United States cannot allow terrorist groups to control its foreign policy.

One clear lesson that has emerged in recent years, however, is that security threats are more effectively countered by united American and European action. The divergent U.S. and European approach to abductions fails to deter captors or consistently safeguard victims.

Last month, a New York Times investigation found that al Qaeda and its direct affiliates had received at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008 — primarily from European governments. In the last year alone, they received $66 million.

“Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil,” Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, wrote in a 2012 letter to the leader of an al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, “which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.”

Publicly, European governments deny making these payments. But former diplomats told the Times that ransoms have been paid through intermediaries.

Kidnapping as a fundraising tactic is thriving and rates are going up. In 2003, a ransom of roughly $200,000 was paid for each captive, the newspaper found. Today, captors reap millions per captive.

U.S. journalist James Foley arrives, after being released by the Libyan government, at Rixos hotel in TripoliAbductions have become so lucrative that al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan help oversee negotiations for affiliates. Militants groups spread across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia are now following the same rough protocol.

Hostage-taking by extremist groups is now so pervasive that at least one major aid organization is not sending U.S. aid workers to areas where they might be abducted. Instead, they are sending citizens from European countries with governments that will pay ransoms.

The cases have taken on a grim pattern: Hostages are abducted, months pass with no news from the captors and a threatening video or email is then sent to families. In some cases, the militants ask that cases not be made public so ransom can be paid quietly.

This was the case in Foley’s tortuous, 21-month abduction. For the first 16 months after Foley was taken captive, his family had no information regarding his whereabouts. They learned he was alive from two Spanish journalists who were freed by the Islamic State in March after a ransom was paid.

In a subsequent email message, the captors instructed the family to keep the case quiet and not identify the Islamic State as the kidnappers. Fearing for Foley’s life, the family obeyed. Other American families with loved ones taken captive by militants have done the same.

Privately, the Foleys and other families have grown intensely frustrated with the failure of American officials to negotiate with the captors. U.S. government officials also refused to coordinate their response in any way with European governments.

In the days and weeks ahead, the Foley family will speak for themselves about their ordeal. But the payment of ransoms and abduction of foreigners must emerge from the shadows. It must be publicly debated. American and European policymakers should be forced to answer for their actions.

Foley believed that his government would help him, according to his family. In a message that was not made public, Foley said that he believed so strongly that Washington would help that he refused to allow his fellow American captives to not believe in their government.

A consistent response to kidnapping by the U.S. and Europe is desperately needed. The current haphazard approach is failing.

James Foley must not die in vain.


PHOTO: James Foley works in Aleppo, Syria, August 2012.  Photo courtesy of Nicole Tung

PHOTO (INSERT 1): French journalist Nicolas Henin (L) is cheered by relatives as he arrives by helicopter from Evreux to the military airbase in Villacoublay, near Paris, April 20, 2014. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

PHOTO (INSERT): Journalist James Foley (front) arrives with fellow reporter Clare Gillis (not pictured), after being released by the Libyan government, at Rixos hotel in Tripoli, May 18, 2011.REUTERS/Louafi Larbi



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No human should have had such ending! I hope the killers are punished and then rot in hell!

Posted by mustafa82 | Report as abusive

Journalists, tourists and adventurors in general are helping to fund terrorists by willfully putting themselves in a position to be kidnapped. The families of these idiots should be admonished for allowing their loved ones to do something stupid like this. If you had stepped out into a busy highway to take a photo of oncoming traffic, would your family approve and support you? Of course not. Where is your common sense. I don’t know who in the US is denying payment of ransoms but bravo to them! Keep up the good work!

Posted by davidhi | Report as abusive

It is not the American policy on not paying ransoms that ultimately was responsible Foley’s killing. It is the policies of countries such as France whose paying of ransoms is the cause of kidnappings. They have been subsidizing there enemies and encouraging further kidnappings.

Posted by zardoz666 | Report as abusive

Stupid question by David Rohde! Cheap journalism!

Posted by Hermist | Report as abusive

How many innocent civilians have died as a result of $125mm in funding.

Posted by ErikR | Report as abusive

If the White House and like-minded leadership in the Cabinet/Members of Congress are not so short-sighted and squeamish in acting upon their academic, theoretical “lets all hold hands” and “play nice in the sandbox” world-view; then dear Mr. Foley might not of been captured, much less executed. International Respect based on the terrible fear of Force/Retribution is often needed to maintain global civility. Some criminal/terror individuals and groups will NEVER be dissuaded from their murderous ways and consequently must be completely, irreversibly removed from this life. The lines of Nationality are now blurred and all who oppose ISIS and their affiliates become targets. Can your Country protect you as an individual as you go about life’s routines?

Specific to the US; the death of yet another American abroad brings the murderers one step closer to the Homeland. Question: If ISIS continues to execute Americans abroad and then engages similar tactics on US soil; can Washington and Wall St. remain a safe haven? What of State and Local Government Leaders? Corporate Managers? Dad, mom, the kids and the Grandparents? Good friends and unknown strangers? We all have family and ISIS knows this too well.

TO – The White House and the like-minded: Welcome to your Legacy and Future. “Kumbaya”

Posted by NPeril | Report as abusive

As is the case with military members, these journalists, and I use the term loosely, are aware of the possibilities that come with VOLUNTARILY deploying to these regions. While this act is tragic and makes me extremely angry, funding the enemy to make up for the less than astute decision making of journalists is NOT the right thing to do. As is the case with every other America hating, openly apologetic liberal fool, David Rohde has opened his mouth spouting poorly thought out comments that blame America instead of the ones committing the act of terror. When people like David Rohde speak, I am ashamed to be an American.

Posted by BeRealistic | Report as abusive

so how does everyone feel about muslim terrorists now…?

There should be no mercy for any muslim terrorist!!!

Posted by ThomJEFFERSON | Report as abusive

America’s no ransom policy is correct, as evidenced by the fact that this criminal activity is regarded as “profitable trade” and “precious treasure”. Every ransom paid both encourages and funds another dozen kidnappings. Stop giving the rats cheese and the rat population will decline, at which point you can go in and beat to death the few rats that remain.

Posted by rdavi | Report as abusive

An alternative approach would be for the U.S. to take extraordinarily harsh, vicious and punitive retaliatory actions against those who perpetrate such atrocities against American citizens, as well as anyone associated with them. Even though we, as a nation, adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits certain types of actions against enemies, there should be a recognition that such codes of conduct are contractual in nature. What if those who commit atrocities against American citizens came to expect that they and their associates would meet ends far more grizzly and unpleasant than what they themselves committed.

And I bet this comment captures the mood of America on this point.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

How about journalists quit going into those areas? A country paying ransom is ridiculous and would only encourage more hostages. What ISIS did today did more damage to themselves in the fact that the world sees ISIS as murderers. You cannot change foreign policy because of a murderer. Kind of makes waterboarding look like childsplay.

Posted by PCCorruption | Report as abusive

Please, enough of this blaming the U.S. policy. The French and English paid ransoms to the Barbary Pirates during Jefferson’s administration. We didn’t pay but sent in the Marines. The only people to blame are the Islamists who killed this reporter. No one else. Just the Islamists. Your editorial posing as a news story is a sorry case of writing. You ARE so wrong. Ransoms and bribes always lead to more of the same. We give in on this, we are opening a door to more of the same.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

I empathize with your capture years ago, but you cannot pay ransom to a party that slaughters hundreds of civilians at the drop of a hat. In fact, even freeing an ISIS POW as opposed to executing him can cause more civilian deaths down the road.

ISIS islamists should be killed on sight anywhere and everywhere, whether in Syria, Mecca, Dubai or Geneve. Anyone who “mediates” ransom negotiations for them or shows any other kind of support should be treated as an enemy also.

Islamic and other types of extremism flourish because the developed countries cannot apply reasonable countermeasures in the name of “fair trial”, “human rights” and all kinds of conventions they’ve collectively signed. Still, any country should have a right (and be willing) to discard any of those conventions when dealing with an opposing party that willfully scorns the same.

Posted by amd65 | Report as abusive

I personally think this is enough , lets use mini nukes on them.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

In the 1970’s, as airline hijackings were becoming common, my family – who were all flying more and more often – held a meeting to discuss the possibilities. We agreed that, in the event that a flight any of us were on were to be hijacked, the other family members would advise the authorities that our lives were NOT to be considered in dealing with the situation.

No ransoms, no yielding to demands, not one single concession given on account of our lives. Just the middle finger and a cheerful “Eff you”. If you really want to live, you have to be willing to die.

For my money, the greatest American heroes thus far of the 21st century are still the passengers on Flight 93. That’s the way you go – with your head, and that middle finger, held high. As badly as I feel for the Foley family, he should have been willing to fall on that sword. ISIS has the fanaticism of their religion – we need to have the fanaticism of our individualism, and our unwillingness to ever bend the knee to another.

Posted by TheWhiteLine | Report as abusive

A foolish article by some desk writer who does not know the real wolrd. The no-ransom policy started after Iran-Contra. The Iranians had sent Reagan a film showing how they were gouging out the eyes of the top CIA man in Iran. Reagan was so horrified and moved that he agreed to the ransom. The ransom was paid but the Iranians had murdered the man anyway. That is when the US stopped paying ransoms.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

No, because Americans are targeted and more highly prized as prisoners so paying ransom would simply provide more motive for the terrorists.

Posted by Greenspan2 | Report as abusive

Beheading a human being and that too in 21st century is the most barbaric act and should be condemned by all. Muslim clerics or imams or religious leaders should condemn this act. James Foley was indeed a brave man till the end. The most shocking thing is – this was an act believed to be perpetrated by a British citizen.

Posted by JoeObserver | Report as abusive

What policy, on our part, is there to clarify? What can we say but, “Pay no attention to the spineless Europeans.”?

Posted by markrm | Report as abusive

You put yourself in harm’s way. Why should the taxpayer bail you out?

Posted by CharlesParisFR | Report as abusive

Witness the hypocrisy and lies at work: the photos accompanying this article depict and intend to blur the lines between the following three facts:

1) the despicable killing of Foley by group of “fighters” funded and trained by NATO and European friendly nations, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan.

2) the safe return of European hostages from captivity in Syria, after spending months kidnapped by groups of “fighters” the West has called freedom fighters for 3 years, and helped them unleash their barbarity on the whole population of Syria.

3) the coming out of detention of the same Foley after being arrested for several weeks, charged with illegally entering and reporting in Libya (which was a true charge in this case), by the legal government of that country; read Foley’s long reporting about his “captivity” on Global Post.

How can these cases be lumped up in this article? Did the now defunct Libyan government torture and behead Foley? Did they even kidnap him? Wouldn’t you be arrested if you were Syrian and illegally entered a country at war, under NATO airstrikes, and found accompanying “rebels” helping NATO in destroying the legitimate state?

Foley went to Syria to portray the Syrian “rebels” (traitors and thugs in reality) as Che Guevaras. He went to Libya and did the same. He knew better. He now knows way better.

The sad fact is the number of Libyans and Syrians that have been maimed, tortured, and beheaded daily for years because of Western reporting helping Western governments slip the buckets of lies down their population’s throats so they keep destabilizing, dividing, and destroying states and societies in the Middle East, under the pretense of freedom and democracy.

The same thugs that butchered Foley were the subjects of his admirative reporting in Libya and Syria.

No one should be fooled.

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

Sometimes I am left simply speechless at the inability of people to correctly interpret texts. The author does not imply that Americans should join the French and pay ransoms. He is suggesting that Americans get together with the other nations who are willing to pay ransoms to come to an understanding— presumably that they will agree to no longer pay ransoms because ransoms induce and escalate kidnappings.

Posted by MarkMM | Report as abusive

In short. It’s the Europeans who screw everyone else by paying ransom in the first place.

So sick of Euro’s. Racist, Ignorant, Arrogant, and they consider themselves all knowing.

Europe is a tourist destination now, nothing more.

Posted by BioStudies | Report as abusive

He knew the risks of being in a battle zone. His plight is no different than the American soldiers assigned in a battle zone. Of course he would not face court martial for failure to show up for duty. His family has my sympathy but as with any hazardous undertaking you toss the dice and take the numbers on the roll. Like deep sea wreck diving.

Posted by Margaretville | Report as abusive

Clearly the ransom money is then used to fund terrorist activities that kill people. So paying ransom encourages more kidnappings and is getting more people killed. Seems like the US has the right idea here. When are the European ransom payers going to wise up?

Posted by weather3014 | Report as abusive

Sucks that he was murdered. We should kill or capture everyone that was involved. That is the best way to deter further kidnappings.

Posted by jim_seattle | Report as abusive

the whole World sees these sadistic monsters for what they are.
and the World doesn’t want their way, or them running things.


Posted by bfar | Report as abusive

You are wrong Rohde, plus all American and British journalists know that their Countries do not ransom.

Posted by Wgward | Report as abusive

What a goofy article, and at a time like this. Talk about spending time staring at one’s naval. It is obvious that paying ransom leads to more kidnapping and terror.

Posted by WestFlorida | Report as abusive

“Did America’s policy on ransom contribute to James Foley’s killing?”

No, extremist bigots contributed to James Foley’s killing.

Look, if the state rewarded drivers for hitting pedestrians, dealers for selling to junkies, and murderers for each victim, life would be a lot harder. Paying ransoms only encourages taking hostages and funds power mongers who’s only goal in life is to make life hell for everyone who doesn’t agree with them.

Posted by Davage | Report as abusive

We did don’t need the information that journalists think we need. Not enough to threaten and eventually lose their lives.

Posted by TAZTlh | Report as abusive

We did don’t need the information that journalists think we need. Not enough to threaten and eventually lose their lives.

Posted by TAZTlh | Report as abusive

My hat is off to the brave war journalists that often work in awful conditions and put themselves in harms way while seeking the truth.

However, my understanding is that most of them work for private news entities, not the US government, so the ransom issue should be addressed in their job contact and/or insurance policy, and have nothing to do with America’s policy on ransom(?)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

correction: job contract

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Maybe Mr. Rohde, you should be demanding that all journalists and their employers take up kidnap/ransom insurance, instead. You take great risks to deliver important stories; shouldn’t you or your employer hedge against a known risk?

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive

Were I to be kidnapped by terrorists (while I travel abroad often, the prospect remains pretty remote), my answer is that I am already dead.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

The headline doesn’t match the argument in the column.

Posted by DaleG | Report as abusive

@BeRealistic wrote: “…these journalists, and I use the term loosely, are aware of the possibilities that come with VOLUNTARILY deploying to these regions.” …
… “As is the case with every other America hating, openly apologetic liberal fool, David Rohde has opened his mouth spouting poorly thought out comments that blame America instead of the ones committing the act of terror. When people like David Rohde speak, I am ashamed to be an American.”

Yes, well, a whole lot of us are ashamed that you are an American, too!

Posted by REnninga | Report as abusive

I liked the column better than the headline. (They kind of say two different things.)

Posted by DaleG | Report as abusive