(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a
columnist for Reuters.)
By David Rohde
Aug 20 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 chilling a 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
Foley 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
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
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
"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
Publicly, European governments deny making these payments.
But former diplomats told the Times that ransoms have been paid
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
Abductions 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
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
A consistent response to kidnapping by the U.S. and Europe
is desperately needed. The current haphazard approach is
James Foley must not die in vain.
(Reporting By David Rohde)