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Al Qaeda Makes a Fortune By Ransoming Prisoners

In the past three and a half years, Western governments have given al Qaeda more than $100 million to free kidnapped hostages.

by Neha Shastry
Jan 31 2014, 12:15am

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In 2009, four European tourists - a Swiss couple, a German woman, and a Brit - were kidnapped in Mali. Three were freed after their governments paid a collective $2.8 million. And last October, the French government allegedly paid $26 million - though they officially deny it - to release three citizens kidnapped in Niger in 2011.

Those payments are only the tip of the iceberg. All told, experts estimate that al Qaeda made at least $105 million in the last 3.5 years from ransoms paid by international governments.

It's one reason why the UNSC approved a resolution this week urging countries to stop paying ransoms to terrorist groups. In a statement before the Security Council, U.K. Ambassador to the UN Sir Mark Lyall Grant described ransom payments as “a lucrative business model” and “a source of terrorist financing.”

Authorities are constantly at great pains to discover how terrorist groups are financed, their sources of revenue being as varied and difficult to track as drug trafficking, conflict diamonds, and state support. In fact, the sources of the most of the money financing terror groups such as al Qaeda can more or less only be guessed at. However, it is possible to guess at much money international governments have paid to release their citizens. It's a lot of money. And it’s also illegal.

A UN resolution adopted following 9/11 strictly prohibited countries from financing terrorism, and that included paying ransoms for their kidnapped citizens. Of course, that didn't stop ransom payments from being made.

In fact, payments to al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and the Middle East currently average about $5 million per Western hostage, which is more than twice the average of only a few years ago. There is international pressure to stop these payments, but there is also pressure at home to make them when a country's citizen has been captured.

Warren Weinstein, a U.S. government contractor, is heading into his third year held in captivity by al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. The U.S. continues to refuse to pay ransom or make any concessions. The video above was released by al Qaeda’s media outlet in late December, showing a lethargic Weinstein pleading for increased interest in his case.

During the UNSC meeting this week, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power made a case for the benefits of all governments abstaining from paying ransom charges. She argued that the rate of kidnappings would eventually decrease because terrorist organizations will “make a point” of not taking hostages from countries who refuse to make concessions.

The fourth kidnapping victim in Mali in 2009 was a U.K. citizen. When his government refused to meet the demands of his captors, they killed him.