On Paying Ransom

by Kevin D. Williamson

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting discussion on the role of ransom in terrorist kidnappings such as that of James Foley. As a matter of policy, the United States and most other countries refuse to pay ransoms and discourage friends and family from paying ransoms, sometimes with the threat of criminal action — the government considers such ransom payments illegal funding of terrorist activities.

That’s probably the right policy.

But in the real world, people pay ransoms. Big companies whose names are familiar to you quietly pay ransoms every year. They budget for them. The paying of ransoms is such an ordinary part of doing business in much of the world that a very large and robust insurance market exists for ransom and extortion policies. The more sophisticated kidnapping operations have pretty good intelligence about who has ransom insurance and what their policies are worth. (Years ago, I did some occasional work for a company in this field.) If you are going to get kidnapped, far better that it is by somebody with an economic motivation rather than an ideological one.

It is worth appreciating that, rhetoric and genuine fanaticism notwithstanding, a great many political terrorist organizations start off as crime syndicates (the Taliban) or end up as crime syndicates (Shining Path). That is, in an odd way, a promising fact: If ISIS et al. should ultimately evolve into a problem that can be solved with money, that would be an excellent thing — exactly the sort of problem you want to have if you are a rich country. 

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