Kidnapping Western nationals for ransom has unlocked an alarming source of funds for terrorist organizations, and current counter-strategies don’t seem to offer an effective deterrent.
According to David Cohen at the U.S. Treasury Department, terrorist organizations have accumulated over $120 million through kidnapping for ransom (KFR) between 2004 and 2012—a fairly enticing supply of cash for organizations that have increasingly turned to criminal networks and techniques to finance attacks.
The U.K.’s Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism estimates that over 150 foreign nationals have been kidnapped by Islamist terrorist groups since 2008, many by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). In fact AQIM alone received an estimated $65 million in KFR payments between 2005 and 2011, with notable kidnappings that include the In Amenas hostage crisis and the abduction of a German, a Swiss, and two British tourists in Mali.
Providing a rare look into the inner workings of the AQIM organization, a few weeks ago the Associated Press discovered a letter (verified by the Pentagon) from AQIM leaders scolding Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of the AQIM faction al-Mulathameen Brigade, for his handling of the hostage negotiations for kidnapped Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler.
While the letter did provide valuable insight into the inner workings of AQIM, it most notably confirmed that leaders recognize the profitability of KFR as a long term strategy and that they are confident in their ability to negotiate higher and higher sums.
Although Canadian officials denied involvement, the letter indicated that Belmokhtar had negotiated $1.1 in ransom (“meager” by AQIM standards) to secure the release of captured diplomat Robert Fowler in 2009. Some argued that while the Canadian government may not have paid the sum directly, officials have not denied that a third party was involved.
Most Western governments denounce negotiating with terrorists, but with the exception of the U.S. and the U.K. few seem to actually adhere to this pledge.
The G8’s communiqué issued last week did include a staunch guarantee from all member states to not paying terrorist ransoms. In addition to the three T’s—trade, taxes, and transparency—on the agenda, the world leaders united to “unequivocally reject the payment of ransoms to terrorists.”
This declaration marks an important step towards showing solidarity among world leaders and publicizing the issue of KFR in regions like North Africa. Higher awareness among travelers and private sector workers might be the best first step.
However given the inconsistency of governments in the past, the G8 declaration needs some more prescriptions to have consequence.
Interestingly the other recommendations that the G8 made to improve transparency and fight corruption could also help to mitigate KFR if thoroughly pursued, such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations.
Pertinent FATF standards include:
- Linking customs and tax agencies to prevent money laundering and cash couriers
- Establishing financial intelligence units that track illicit money flow
- Stricter requirements for financial institutions to report suspicious activity
- Criminalizing funding a terrorist organizations regardless if those funds are linked to an attack
These will help expose private companies or third party organizations that may be paying ransoms, with or without government knowledge, and impose much stricter consequences.
One potential obstacle is the difficulty with which governments label terrorists. As terrorist groups and other criminal organizations collaborate more, radicals will begin to use criminal surrogates to kidnap foreigners and negotiate ransoms on their behalf.
This aspect has to be approached at a local and regional level. The U.S. can work with high KFR risk nations to improve protection services and institutions, but regional cooperation must improve, especially in North Africa. Morocco and Algeria have to reengage and participate in organizations such as the Arab Maghreb Union. Intelligence sharing from local sources and border cooperation can effectively combat criminal and terrorist operations.
If AQIM and other groups continue to reap cash from the KFR industry, other efforts to limit terror financing will become futile. The U.S. and the U.K. must continue to press Europe to commit to non-negotiation, foster greater regional cooperation in the Sahel and Maghreb, and increase public awareness of the high risk of kidnapping.