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Trudeau Convinces G7 to Oppose Ransoms, as the Multi-Billion Dollar Kidnapping Industry Booms

Canada is refusing to pay ransom to the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf, but that doesn't mean there's not an effort to pay the terrorist group.
Nicolas Datiche/Pool Photo via AP

The G7 nations will not pay ransoms.

So says a new directive issued Friday at the end of the G7 talks in Japan in the hopes of stemming the flow of hostage-taking by terrorists worldwide — a practice that has increased in recent years.

"We unequivocally reiterate our resolve not to pay ransoms to terrorists, to protect the lives of our nationals and, in accordance with relevant international conventions, to reduce terrorist groups' access to the funding that allows them to survive and thrive, and call on all states to do so," the directive states.

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But while well-meaning, the public stand against ransoms does little to disguise the ongoing flow of money to terrorist groups in exchange for hostages, and the booming multi-billion dollar kidnap and ransom industry worldwide. It's an industry that sees insurance companies pay out hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, to families who have paid ransoms for their loved ones — insurance policies that one analyst says are vital in hostage situations, or they're "shit out of luck."

The language in the policy comes after a concerted effort by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has championed the issue, arguing that paying one ransom only incentivizes future kidnappings.

"I expressed my firm resolve and the clear resolve of Canadians to prevent the Canadian flag from becoming a target when worn on a backpack around the world," Trudeau told reporters from Japan.

Related: As Clock Ticks on Hostages Held By Abu Sayyaf, Canada to Raise Ransom Issue at G7 Talks

Friday's announcement by the G7 nations comes one month after the death of Canadian John Ridsdel in the Philippines, and has renewed a longstanding debate over the ethics of paying ransoms.

Before he was executed by IS-affiliate Abu Sayyaf, Ridsdel was being held with another Canadian, Robert Hall, and two others captured in the same September raid of a marina, Norwegian Kjartan Sekking and Filipina Marites Flor. In a new video, the group set a fast-approaching deadline of June 13, threatening to kill another hostage if their demands aren't met.

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The days leading up to Ridsdel's execution were full of pressure and frustration — both for his family and his captors.

The mining company contractor and at least two dozen other hostages were reportedly being held in the dense jungle of the southern Philippine island of Jolo, under a constant barrage of military assault — complicating communications as the April 25 deadline on Ridsdel's life approached, according to a family friend.

It's not clear what prompted his kidnappers to carry out their threats, but a video released by the group shows Ridsdel's captors brutally beheaded him when the deadline passed.

Since the hostage situation is ongoing, the Canadian government and his family have been quiet on the specifics of what happened leading up to Ridsdel's beheading.

It's unclear what strategies the Canadian government used to try to secure his release. But former Liberal leader and close Ridsdel friend Bob Rae told VICE News what was happening behind the scenes for the family.

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Rae, a former premier of Ontario and interim leader of the federal Liberal Party, said the family asked for his help in the early days after the kidnapping. He said he facilitated discussions between Ridsdel and government officials before the previous Canadian election, and after the election he said he made sure the family was aware of the services available to them from the government, including consular services in Global Affairs. He said officials were "very much on top of the situation," though he wouldn't specify in what way.

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He said he didn't believe the Canadian government was in contact directly with Abu Sayyaf, but said, "I do think and know that there were direct communications between the family members and Abu Sayyaf. And that there were also efforts to raise money, which everyone was aware of, the government was fully aware of that."

Leading up to the April 25 deadline, the family did their very best to negotiate on behalf of Ridsdel and the three other hostages who were captured at the same time he was, Rae said.

During those communications, Rae said both the numbers demanded for a ransom and the deadlines given shifted.

But he said the process was hugely frustrating. "They were being kept in a war zone, there was a military conflict going on all the time, and all of that together made the discussions very, just from a purely technical point of view, very difficult. We're not talking about a negotiation in a board room somewhere. Sometimes communications were bad, sometimes the demands would change, the dates, the deadlines would change."

According to the Philippine Star, the Philippine military deployed additional troops five days before the deadline in an attempt to rescue the hostages. The group is reportedly holding at least two dozen captives in the dense jungle region.

"If you don't pay the ransom, they're going to die. If you pay the ransom, it's going to happen again, again, again. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. And consequently there's nothing you can do about it because the precedent has been set. Governments, families, companies, insurance companies, all pay terrorists and kidnappers to get people back. And as long as they do that, it's never going to stop."

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A military spokesperson told the paper the army was conducting "relentless" search and rescue operations in Sulu province on Jolo island, and forces were watching other Abu Sayyaf strongholds nearby. The hunt for the hostages was on top of military operations already targeting Abu Sayyaf.

"We do not follow [a] deadline, whether it's nearing or not," army spokesperson Major Filemon Tan Jr. said. "As long as we get the information, the troops will hit them."

The constant military assault on the region by the Philippine army "made it a much more complex negotiation," Rae said.

Both the hostages and their captors were "under tremendous pressure," he said.

"It was a hugely frustrating process for the families and frustrating and very painful to watch it unfolding."

"In the end the negotiations were simply, I guess the best way to say this is, they just weren't successful."

VICE News reached out to Ridsdel's family but did not hear back.

In a letter sent to friends and family, his daughters Bree and Janis wrote, "We are devastated by his death and are struggling to comprehend our loss. We want to remember our dad as he lived: adventurous, idealistic and gregarious, a great friends and brother and a truly great father."

Related: Filipino Jihadists Who Beheaded Canadian Hostage Vow to Execute Another If Ransom Not Paid

The daughters set up a memorial fund for him to raise money for girls' equality and education, and said they were planning a small ceremony in Canada later this summer.

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Ridsdel's family's attempt to raise money to save their father is part of a $2.6 billion kidnap and ransom industry worldwide, known by the shorthand K&R, according to Alan Bell, president of Globe Risk International and expert in global counter-terrorism.

It's not known whether Ridsdel, who was living and working in the Philippines, had a K&R insurance policy, but insurance companies are increasingly selling these policies, which compensate families and companies in the event they pay ransoms for hostages. Companies like Bell's also provide training for those travelling to conflict zones.

Anyone who gets kidnapped and doesn't have K&R insurance "is shit out of luck," says Bell.

Bell doesn't support paying ransoms, but says, "If they kidnap somebody and you want them back alive, you're going to have to pay for them. There are no two ways about it."

A kidnap negotiation is a business meeting, Bell explains, and a good negotiator can bring a hostage home safely for under $1 million.

But several factors can complicate the outcome.

The military operations targeting Abu Sayyaf would have "badly" impacted negotiations, which are already complex discussions, he said. And the family should have nothing to do with the negotiation, he says, because they're too emotionally attached to the outcome.

"If you don't pay the ransom, they're going to die. If you pay the ransom, it's going to happen again, again, again. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. And consequently there's nothing you can do about it because the precedent has been set. Governments, families, companies, insurance companies, all pay terrorists and kidnappers to get people back. And as long as they do that, it's never going to stop."

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When Canadians Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were captured by al-Qaeda, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper denied the government paid ransoms for hostages. But a WikiLeaks cable later revealed Fowler, a Canadian diplomat, was released after his captors were paid by Canada, the Globe and Mail reported.

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Bell said the G7 statement against paying ransoms is "all smoke and mirrors." No nation will stand by the agreement or admit publicly to having paid a ransom, he predicts.

"Every time there's a kidnapping, everyone looks for a silver bullet to make it go away," Bell says. There isn't one. You're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't."

In the short term, the army's assault on Abu Sayyaf amounted to "a failure in the way Ridsdel was handled," according to Julkipli Wadi, a professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines. The ongoing assault on Abu Sayyaf made things worse, in a sense, he said.

"You really have to have certain grasp of the nuance of the area. You don't just go there and say, 'I will kill you all,'" he said. "That is not the right thing to do because you will endanger the hostages." The no-ransom policy also doesn't work in the region, he believes.

In the long term the solution is a comprehensive peace agreement between the insurgent groups and the government. "If you do that it will be easier to address the Abu Sayyaf problem."

Since the 1970s, Moro groups in the southwestern Philippines have been trying to form their own country, leading to insurgency and instability in the region. In the early 1990s, Abu Sayyaf emerged as one of the most violent of these insurgent groups. Today in the southern Philippines, Abu Sayyaf benefits from sympathetic locals who share their separatist sentiments, Wadi says. They're also popular with young Moros, with kids as young as 12 joining Abu Sayyaf, he said.

"You cannot isolate [Abu Sayyaf] from the larger political questions of [the southwest Philippines], and that is the bigger political issue relative to the peace process," he says.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont