Andy Owen

Prisoners dilemma: should we pay kidnappers?

Prisoners dilemma: should we pay kidnappers?
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British-Mexican national Claudia Uruchurtu Cruz disappeared on the night of Friday 26 March in the town of Nochixtlan, Oaxaca State, Mexico. Claudia had been seen attending a rally protesting the beating of a local labourer, allegedly by security elements linked to the local municipal president. Unconfirmed witness statements claim she was grabbed and pushed into a red car. Claudia never arrived home and her family and friends have not heard from her since. 

What is the right response for the British government? The most debated issue is whether to pay ransoms. Some governments refuse, others pay, or at least turn a blind eye to families that do. In Mali, where British troops are now operating, France has paid millions of dollars to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This week an anonymous official cited on Iranian state TV suggested that the UK had paid a £400 million debt to free British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe — but the Foreign Office insisted its position is unchanged.

The UK Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill states that the UK should not pay ransoms, as providing resources to a terrorist group encourages further kidnappings and fuels terrorist activity. It’s an approach that mixes pragmatism and principle. Could further pragmatism keep UK citizens safer? While the principle of non-payment may avoid fuelling terrorist activity can another approach better address the underlying problems that create the organisations doing the kidnapping? The UK’s publicly stated ransom policy will come under new scrutiny now Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release  has been linked to the payment of a 1979 debt for tanks that were never delivered to Iran.

During my time in the military, I was involved in a kidnap response. Staring at the grainy video, trying to spot any detail that might identify the location of the grotesque scene, everything that made kidnapping an awful act was painfully apparent. The hostage on the floor in front of armed men in black balaclavas had already experienced fake executions. His dishevelled appearance and the kidnapper’s harsh ideology suggested he had been poorly treated. He was kneeling in an orange boiler suit, forced to say what he didn’t believe, denied the ability to speak to loved ones or hear any final messages of comfort from them. At no point did we consider meeting the kidnappers’ demands, even though my presence in Iraq, would increase the risk of kidnap for British citizens more than any payment ever had. In Iraq a female prisoner due to be released by the coalition had her release postponed so it was not interpreted as a concession to kidnappers who had her release in their demands.

Does non-payment mean UK citizens are less likely to be taken? While other countries pay, kidnappers continue to target Westerners — only later establishing their nationalities. UK citizens are still taken, but other citizens are released after payments. This is what happened to Edward Dyer in Mali in 2009, who was killed after the Canadian, Swiss and German hostages he was taken with were all released after payment. 

Ethically, the right answer is unclear. If we decide to start paying, future hostages would be spared execution. But preventing the death of a hostage means we create an incentive to take more hostages who experience untold psychological trauma. It is right to adopt a principle that allows someone to die to save a greater number of others the 'less bad' stress of being kidnapped? 

Payment to hostages also raises questions over the responsibilities of a state to protect its citizens and its responsibilities to not place foreign citizens in danger when doing so. If we don’t pay our citizens may die. If we do pay, by providing funds for recruitment and weapons we contribute to the deaths of citizens who live in the countries where the terrorists operate. Is it worse to let people die by failing to rescue them or is it worse to create more would-be killers and incentivise kidnapping? 

Fundamentally, most political theorists agree that the central aim of government is to protect its citizens from violence. States prioritise their citizens above those of other countries. The ethical equation must weigh the wrong done to a citizen by his own government by failing to protect them against the wrong done to a foreign citizen by contributing to violence they will suffer in their own country — even if this isn’t the intent but an obvious consequence. 

Ultimately, governments need to evaluate how many lives of their own citizens are equal to the lives of foreign nationals. It's a nasty calculation but one that has to be made. In the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe although sanctions have complicated the issue, non-payment has appeared to have been driven by fears that the money would go to the Revolutionary Guard, the military wing of the government, and fund their military activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. The US designates the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation, the UK does not.

For the family of the hostage, the dilemma is more personal and emotionally difficult. How many lives of those you don’t know are worth the life of a loved one?

We can avoid this awful equation. Governments can offset payments by a greater commitment to solving the issues that have created the conditions for the kidnappers to operate. At a minimum this means the restoration of the shrinking overseas aid budget. This would achieve the end goal of the policy of non-payment, saving the lives of future foreign nationals, protecting future UK citizens and saving the life of the hostage. 

The other way a kidnapping is resolved is by force. I was watching the video of an American hostage to identify the location of his fellow British detainee. UK troops were prepared to risk their lives getting him back. An analyst found a flicker in the video imperceptible to the eye but occurring at regular intervals. It was interference from the radar at Baghdad International Airport. The gap between the flickers gave us a circumference around the airport on which the video was filmed. We received several tip-offs. Potential locations were hit with no luck. Such operations place both the hostages and soldiers at great risk. Full of adrenaline, in a smoke-filled room, it can be difficult to tell the difference between someone running to you for help and an attacker. 

While I knew we didn’t negotiate with terrorists (although the peace process in Northern Ireland would have failed if we hadn’t engaged senior IRA leadership) we did want them to communicate, as this provided opportunities to locate them. A foreign journalist was contacted by the group and came into the British Embassy to be an interlocutor. Without his knowledge, he was followed by car and then drone. He was lost at the outskirts of insurgent-held Fallujah when, after an exchange of passengers, we couldn’t make out which of the cars to follow. The hostage managed to briefly escape, but a video later confirmed his death.

The complexities outlined above show the difficulty of having such a clear policy in a world where others pay. The determination to rule out one of the potential responses could be endangering UK citizens, while paying could ultimately spur on kidnappings. Back in Mexico, Claudia’s family have yet to receive any demands. They are tirelessly attempting to keep her case on the authorities’ agenda. Richard Ratcliffe has said he is unaware of any deal to free Nazanin. My hope is that the UK government takes a pragmatic approach to help both families bring their loved ones home.