Beheaded Hostage Triggers Debate Over Whether Governments Should Pay Ransoms

After Canadian John Ridsdel was beheaded by Filipino jihadists Abu Sayyaf, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed that under no circumstances would Canada make ransom payments to terrorist groups.
May 3, 2016, 9:05pm
Canadian Robert Hall and now deceased John Ridsdel (head bowed), alongside two other hostages held by Abu Sayyaf.

"To the Canadian government, I'm told to tell you to meet the demand," said Robert Hall, a Canadian hostage being held by the Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf, speaking into the camera in a video — the fifth of its kind in eight months — released by his captors Tuesday morning.

"I don't know what you're doing, but you're not doing anything for us. John has been sacrificed, his family has been decimated, and I'm not sure why or what you're waiting for."

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Last week, Hall's fellow Canadian hostage John Ridsdel was beheaded by the kidnappers after a deadline they'd set for a ransom payment had expired. The world is watching to see what the fate of Hall and the two other hostages will be, especially now that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made the stern proclamation that under no circumstances would Canada make ransom payments to terrorist groups.

Paying ransom is "a significant source of funds for terrorist organizations that then allow them to continue to perpetrate deadly acts of violence against innocents around the world," he said last week.

"But more importantly, paying ransom, for Canadians, would endanger the lives of every single one of the millions of Canadians who live, work and travel around the globe every single year."

While most experts understand why he'd make the statement, some have disputed Trudeau's claim that ransoms are never an option in hostage situations and say payments are made on a regular basis, sometimes by families who step in when the government doesn't. There's no consensus, however, on what the right move is for nations caught between desperate relatives and the broader implications of funneling money into violent organizations — and validating the means.

'Paying ransom, for Canadians, would endanger the lives of every single one of the millions of Canadians who live, work and travel around the globe every single year.'

Italy and France are known for regularly making payments to secure the releases of their own citizens who have been kidnapped abroad. In June, American officials announced that they'd no longer threaten to prosecute families who tried to pay ransom themselves to ensure the release of hostages — the result of a six-month review prompted by criticism of the older policy from victims' families, who said they were threatened with prosecution for trying to raise money.

The UK, meanwhile, has taken a strong anti-ransom position, and Trudeau said he'd spoken directly with British Prime Minister David Cameron about the issue.

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"We agreed that it is something we are going to make sure we do bring up with our friends and allies around the world as we come to grips with the fact that the world is a dangerous place," he said.

But those who have been involved in crisis negotiations say Trudeau's comments don't accurately reflect what happens behind the scenes when a Canadian has been kidnapped.

Gar Pardy, former head of consular services at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (now Global Affairs Canada), who declined to be interviewed for this story, recently claimed that during his 11-year-tenure, he managed to secure the releases of more than 100 kidnapped Canadians in all parts of the world.

"I cannot provide details, but it can be said with certainty: if a kidnapped person has been released, then a ransom of some sort has been paid," Pardy wrote in an op-ed last week for the Ottawa Citizen. "To believe that kidnappers can have a change of heart is a fairy tale. And derring-do raids by special forces are largely fiction from the imagination of Hollywood.

Related: 'I Am Outraged," Trudeau Says After Canadian Captive Killed in the Philippines

Fred Burton, the VP of global intelligence firm Stratfor and oversees its analysis of security developments, told VICE News that Trudeau's remarks shouldn't be taken out of context.

"That is what's needed from a public official, from an official government position," said Burton. "But in reality, intelligence services in all nations, including Canada, are going to be pressing whatever buttons they can to affect the safe return of their nationals that are being held captive."

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"There's an above-the-line position the governments do take, but in reality, the work is done below the line," he said, adding that this may include engaging terrorists in conversation to see if their financial demands can be reduced.

"In many ways, by making these kinds of statements, they're a little bit disingenuous because intelligence services are still going to try to move heaven and earth to try and bring that foreign national home," he said.

An al Qaeda letter obtained by the Associated Press in 2011 said $1.1 million had been paid to free former Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, who were held captive in Niger in 2009, although it's unclear where the money came from. Fowler himself was kept in the dark about the circumstances around his release, but in his book A Season in Hell, he admitted he didn't believe that he was let go because of "blue eyes."

A US State Department cable leaked by WikiLeaks in 2011 also suggested that a ransom payment was involved in the case of Fowler and Guay, contrary to repeated denials from the Canadian government.

Aisha Ahmad, a University of Toronto professor who has been studying how jihadist groups finance their militant operations, called it a no-win situation.

"If we pay, our loved ones are saved, but the group gets a windfall and increases its capabilities to harm others," she told U of T News. "If we don't pay, our loved ones are savagely and publicly murdered, and the terrorist group increases its credibility and even gets more covert transnational support from sympathizers."

'It is also folly to think that not paying the ransom in any one case will deter terrorists from future kidnappings.'

"It is also folly to think that not paying the ransom in any one case will deter terrorists from future kidnappings, or make them go away," she continued. "It's not that easy. Rather, each beheading actually adds credence and weight to the terrorists' threats, which then makes it more likely that they will attain a ransom for their next victim."

It's a conversation that hits close to home for Lorinda Stewart, the mother of Amanda Lindhout, a young freelance journalist who was kidnapped in Somalia, where she'd travelled to pursue a story, and held captive for over a year as the Canadian government and her family scrambled to get her out.

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After about 10 months, the government backed out, citing a lack of progress in the case, leaving Stewart to deal with the situation on her own. Stewart, who then hired a private security company, continued to operate as the head negotiator.

In a recent interview with CBC's the Current, Lindhout made public a recording of what she and her mother now refer to as "the worst call."

"Things have changed here, mom," said Lindhout, barely decipherable over a bad connection. "You need to pay the money now… they've started to torture me."

Stewart reassured her, her voice steady.

"We have offered half a million dollars," she said. "We are selling everything we can. We are trying so hard."

By that point, Lindhout had already been in captivity for over a year, her teenage kidnappers growing increasingly frustrated that their demands weren't being met. The call took place after she'd been tied up and beaten for three days straight, which Stewart believes was the result of her yelling at one of the kidnappers and telling him he was playing games.

Related: 'This Is the Absolute Final Warning': Hostages Beg for Ransom to Be Paid in the Philippines

It's been years since Lindhout came home, but Stewart is still coping with the guilt of what happened to her daughter, blaming some of it on herself. Extreme stress has caused her voice, which she temporarily lost, to turn hoarse and shaky.

At the time of that call, Stewart had already been raising funds for a ransom payment, despite warnings from the government that it could land her in jail for 10 years. She took the risk, however, knowing that no one had been charged or convicted for the offence, and that the optics of the government charging her, when they couldn't secure her release themselves, weren't great.

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But despite narrowly avoiding the possibility of not seeing each other again, Lindhout and her mother agree with Trudeau that governments shouldn't pay ransoms. They paid the kidnappers and the private security firm a fee of $600,000 each.

"I understand Trudeau's position," Lindhout told the CBC. "I actually understand and agree with how a policy like that serves to protect Canadians who are traveling around the world."

She believes, however, that families should be able to negotiate and raise money for their loved ones without the threat of jail time, and Stewart agrees.

"While I worked with the RCMP, I always worked under the threat that if I were to do anything outside of what they gave me permission to do, that they would drop our case," Stewart said. "And so that kept me afraid so I worked closely with them believing what they were telling me, that they were very close to securing her release."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk