The USA does not negotiate with terrorists

By Bismah Ali

James Foley and the need for consistent international approaches to hostage situations.

Before his brutal murder, James Foley’s masked executioner explained that his death was in direct response to recent United States airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS.

However, after his kidnap from Syria in 2012 and until recently, ISIS had different criteria for the release of Foley, as well as other kidnapped American and British citizens, including Steven Sotloff, a Time magazine journalist and the second hostage threatened. The release of the hostages was dependent on the fulfilment of a list of demands which included prisoner swaps and monetary payments.

But the USA does not make concessions to terrorists.

This policy approach to hostage situations, shared by the United States and the United Kingdom, is in opposition to European countries, who have routinely made, or at least facilitated, the payment of ransoms to secure the release of their citizens. A recent investigation by The New York Times revealed that at least $125 million in ransom payments have been paid to Al Qaeda and affiliates since 2008. Whilst publicly denied by European governments, these ransom payments are usually written off as foreign aid, or facilitated through the use of intermediary companies (such as the state-owned French nuclear giant Areva) in order to distance the governments from the flow of cash. In fact, for Al Qaeda, the abduction of Europeans for ransom has become a global business and a major source of income. Nasser al-Wuhayshi, Al Qaeda leader in the Arabian Peninsula, explained in The Times, ‘kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.’

The justification for not negotiating with terrorists is simple: the anathema of a healthy democracy is violence, so terrorists must never be rewarded for its use. To negotiate with terrorists is to give legitimacy to their cause; to allow them to dictate foreign policy; to simultaneously undermine political negotiations and destabilise governments. Crucially: negotiations with terrorists create a dangerous precedent.

But aside from defending western democratic values, ideas, hypotheticals: the loved ones of those kidnapped would undoubtedly pay ransom to the perpetrators. And there is the moral argument: we can look to Kant’s deontological principles – specifically the categorical imperative – which, when applied to a hostage situation, states that defending western maxims in order to send the abstract message that kidnapping will not influence policy does not justify the loss of real, tangible human life; in other words, it is never morally justified to use a human life as a means to an end. Perhaps this is the European rationale.

At any rate, it is crucial to note that the disparity between the foreign policy approaches of the US, UK and Europe spells life or death in a hostage situation, wholly dependent on the nationality of the hostage. European victims walk free because of their governments’ willingness to pay ransom; British and American kidnap victims are doomed because of the rigid stance of their governments.

And yet, despite the old refrain, the USA does negotiate with terrorists. In 2009, British civilian Peter Moore was freed after almost three years after his kidnap by Shia militia in Baghdad. A quid pro quo secured Moore’s release, with the US government agreeing to release Qais al-Khazali, leader of the militant group Asaib Ahl al-Haq – a high value asset – in exchange.

In May 2014, the USA released five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for US army solider Bowe Berghdal; a negotiation that contravened US law due to the failure to notify congress 30 days in advance of using appropriated funds, and violating the Antideficiency Act by using them for prohibited purposes.

But the most famous example of negotiations with terrorists is the Iran-Contra affair, where in order to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon, the Reagan administration sold missiles to Tehran.

There is a clear inconsistency between the stance governments take against negotiations with terrorists, and what they actually do. The unyielding nature of the ‘no negotiations’ stance means that any examples like Berghdal, Moore and Iran-Contra only serve to jeopardise the integrity of the US political system, and help to prevent any further exploration of how best to conduct these negotiations.

Disparate US and European approaches to kidnapping fail on two counts: in deterring perpetrators and in safeguarding the victims. Threats to security can be more effectively contended with by a unified approach by the US and Europe.

Writing for Reuters, columnist David Rohde, himself kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008, contends that ‘the payment of ransoms and abduction of foreigners must emerge from the shadows. It must be publicly debated. American and European policy makers should be forced to answer for their actions.’

The current international approach to hostage situations is gauche, indiscriminate and reckless. What is desperately needed is for the U.S and Europe to form a consistent response to kidnap situations. If paying ransom for kidnap victims, negotiating governments must accept the cost to their democracies and their security. If not, governments must uniformly defend the values they affirm.

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