Price of freedom

The UN Security Council has agreed to a resolution urging countries to stop paying kidnap ransoms to extremist groups like Al-Qaeda. UN officials say hostage taking is now a “core Al-Qaeda activity” and are trying to build a stronger international consensus against paying ransoms.

Zawahiri, on the other hand, has explicitly told his supporters to kidnap westerners and, in North Africa and Syria especially, his policy is being implemented. Paymentfor a single individual can reach as much as $5 million. 

While it seems some of the highest payments come from western governments, many of the ransoms are made by insurance companiesthat are enjoying growing profits from providing cover to businessmen. The kidnap and ransom insurance business is based in the city of London and it worth $600 a year. It’s often a condition of the policy that those who are insured are not told that they have cover.

Governments are now reminding the insurance companies that if a hostage taker is on the UN’s Al-Qaeda sanctions list then the payment would be illegal. But the whole area of ransom payment is riddled with official hypocrisy and inconsistency. While the British government, for example, says kidnap for ransom must be eliminated as a source of terrorist financing it also allows contractors who work for it to take out kidnap insurance.

And many of the governments that voted for the UN resolution have allowed payments to be made in politically sensitive cases. It is widely believed, for example, that the French recently made multi-million dollar pay-outs to free some hostages in Nigeria.

British hostages can have no idea how their government will react to their plight. If they are held by politically-driven terrorists to whom minsters strongly object then the SAS might be deployed. But if they are kidnapped by commercially motivated bandits they will probably be left to their fate. Unless, of course, the UK’s national honour is at stake – as with some kidnappings in Iraq – when according to UK personnel who served in Iraq, British officials turned a blind eye to, and even facilitated, payments.

On the other hand, if ministers consider the kidnapper to be a terrorist but decide against an SAS rescue then families or employers trying to pay ransom can be threatened with criminal proceedings.

It is believed that the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler was freed after the payment of over 260,000 pounds to the Somali pirates who had captured them. The payment was made despite British government opposition but because pirates are not considered terrorists the government didn’t prosecute. 

The UK foreign office shows little interest in uninsured, badly connected and low-profile hostages. Because behind all the moral dilemmas the simple fact remains that some hostages are more valuable than others. Which takes us to the case of the Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto, and his German colleague Bernd Muehlenbeck.

You may dimly remember their names. On January 19, 2012 they were in Multan working for a German agricultural NGO Welhungerhife trying to restore flood-damaged land when four armed men stormed their house in Multan, smothered them with chloroform and kidnapped them.

Since then there has only been one sign of life. In December 2102 the German hostage was filmed for just 46 seconds and the resultant video was delivered to the RFE offices in Islamabad. There are rumours that a second, more recent and longer tape may exist but so far it has not appeared on any TV channel.

In the first tape Muehlenbeck asked that the ‘mujahideen’, as he described his captors, be given whatever they wanted and urged the German government not to try to mount a rescue operation. “Time is running out”, he said, “anything could happen to us now.”

Since he used the word ‘we’ it’s thought that Giovanni Lo Porto must have been both alive and in close proximity to Muehlenbeck when the video was made.

Presumably because they were aid workers rather than businessmen, neither Rome nor Berlin have seemed to show much interest in the case. The inactivity of the Italian and German governments has been helped by the families’ acceptance of official advice to keep the kidnapping low profile.

Governments often make such requests. Since most relatives feel powerless and want to believe that their government is doing something they generally agree to stay quiet.

Concerned that strategy has not helped Lo Porto, his family and friends are starting to make some noise. They seem to have reached the conclusion that the only way to get Italian politicians and diplomats to put pressure on the powers that be in Pakistan is to create so much fuss that they become an embarrassing problem.

In Pakistan, where elements of the security apparatus have links with some kidnappers, generating political pressure through publicity can work.

That’s why 48,000 people now have signed a petition calling on the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, and the prime minister, Enrico Letta, to ensure “all possible efforts” are made to bring about Lo Porto’s release. Only by such tactics, Lo Porto’s family believes, will their officials stop behaving with such torpor. 

And they are probably right. But even then, in a clear majority of cases, release follows payment – which is why that UN resolution may make sense on paper but is bad news for people who travel in areas where kidnappings happen. Just ask the officials who pushed it through the Security Council. If their loved ones were kidnapped, would they be willing to pay to get them freed? Of course they would.

The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain. 

Twitter: @OwenBennettJone 


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