Before decapitating American photojournalist James Foley in the desert dirt, the insurgents of Islamic State sought – and failed – to persuade the United States to pay a multimillion-dollar ransom for his release. The U.S., in keeping with its long-standing policy, declined to pay.
Now, with Foley's fellow journalist Steven Sotloff still in the clutches of the fundamentalist group, that harshly practical policy has come under scrutiny. Critics want to know how the U.S. can justify turning its back on an American in trouble, and why it won't simply pay terrorist groups to release hostages the way some European governments apparently do on a regular basis.
It's a good question. But in the end, the U.S. policy is the right one.
The brutal terrorists of Islamic State proved themselves to be amoral thugs long before they executed Foley, which they ostensibly did as vengeance for U.S. military attacks on IS fighters in Iraq. Witnesses say IS has conducted mass executions, beheaded or crucified fellow Muslims as well as non-Muslims, and raped and enslaved women, all in the name of establishing its caliphate amid the chaos of Syria and Iraq.
It takes money to wage war, and in the last six months Islamic State has released at least 10 European hostages after extorting ransoms from their governments and families _ as much as $10 million in one reported case. An additional 20 hostages (many of them foreign aid workers) remain in its hands, with four grabbed near Aleppo last week, according to the Guardian newspaper. The European hostages stand a good chance of having their freedom bought. Sotloff does not.
Our hearts go out to Foley's family, and we shudder at Sotloff's possible fate. To cut a deal, however, would not only put dollars into the hands of the very terrorists the U.S. is trying to stamp out, but, more importantly, would embolden the extremists to kidnap more Americans.
While it's impossible to determine whether European ransom payers have exacerbated the kidnapping problem, it stands to reason that if hostage takers regularly get the money they demand, they'll only be inclined to repeat the exercise. The New York Times reported last month that European ransoms have fed at least $125 million to Al Qaeda offshoots since 2008, and that money now forms most of Al Qaeda's operating budget.
Standing on principle even though it could cost lives in the short term requires policymakers to make a gut-wrenching, morally difficult choice. Still, the European nations are wrong to let themselves be coerced into paying ransoms. The greater good is served by the Obama administration's adherence to a no-ransom policy.