Killing of James Foley reignites debate about US stand on terrorist ransoms

US stands firm on its policy of never negotiating with terrorist organisations, even to save a life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 August, 2014, 9:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 August, 2014, 12:56am

The United States, by rejecting demands for a nine-digit payment to save kidnapped journalist James Foley, upheld a policy choice that some European and Arab governments long found too wrenching.

Washington has ruled out paying ransom to rescue any citizen held captive by militant organisations under any circumstances in the hope the tough stand will make Americans a less attractive target for extremists.

Foley's beheading by the Islamic State group intensified a debate within the Obama administration and with United States allies abroad about whether to pay ransoms to al-Qaeda and other organisations, at the risk of encouraging more abductions and funding militancy.

For al-Qaeda and some other militant bands, ransoms paid to free kidnapped Europeans over the past 10 years have surpassed donations from private supporters as a source of funding, according to the US and Britain, which, like the US, adheres to a long-standing policy of not paying ransoms.

Foley's Islamic State captors had demanded €100 million (HK$1 billion) from his parents and political concessions from Washington, but neither obliged, authorities said.

The Islamic State also demanded a €100 million ransom each for two other American hostages, a source said. These demands to the families of each hostage came only once, late last year.

Foley, 40, a freelance journalist from the state of New Hampshire, was killed within the past week inside Syria, where he had been held since his disappearance there in November 2012. Extremists revealed his death in a video released on Tuesday showing his beheading.

A senior US official said Islamic State had made a "range of requests" for Foley's release, including changes in American policy in the Middle East.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Islamic State had collected millions of dollars in ransoms this year. "We do not make concessions to terrorists," Harf said. "We do not pay ransoms."

Foley's parents said they regarded an email they received from his captors last week as a hopeful sign they could negotiate with the militants.

John and Diane Foley, of Rochester, New Hampshire, told NBC's
Today programme they were excited to see the latest email even though it threatened execution, because they hoped Islamic State would be willing to negotiate.

"I underestimated that [threat]; I did not realise how brutal they were," John Foley said.

The issue of payments by American families or US corporations is now under debate within the Obama administration.

The USA Patriot Act prohibits payment or assistance to terror groups that could boost their support.

Yet prosecution in those types of cases is rare and the law is enforced haphazardly.