The New York Times reported this week that many European nations are paying ransom to Al-Quaeda for return of their kidnapped nationals. While the humanitarian impulse behind such payments is wholly understandable, they pose a clear danger to the security and ultimately to the liberty of the West, including the United States. Ransom payments encourage more kidnapping. And they fund Al-Qaeda. The substantial sums of money raised could be used to launch even more serious plots, including plots to obtain and use weapons of mass destruction. ISIS is also likely to copycat this successful strategy. And remember that Al-Qaeda disaffiliated with ISIS because the latter was too violent and extreme. (Parenthetically, I might mention that 20 years ago, I was able to walk with complete safety in Raqqa, now the de-facto capital of ISIS. That recollection, along with the memory of the old-world charm of the now decimated Aleppo, is a personal measure of the calamity that has befallen the region).
The West had better come to international legal agreements to stop such ransoms–and soon. International coordination is required because ransoming hostages of one nation endangers the security of everyone by making terrorists more powerful. The United States, which has properly refused to pay ransom, must lead the effort for international agreements here. In return for an agreement not to pay ransom, we can agree to use our superior intelligence capabilities to find hostage victims and, where possible, attempt rescues with our unparalleled special forces. Sadly, rescues will not always be successful, but the prospect of Delta force action will itself deter hostage taking.
The International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages provides universal jurisdiction against terrorist kidnappers. Universal jurisdiction permits any nation, regardless of its connection to the crime, to prosecute the kidnapper. In that sense, kidnappers would be treated like pirates– the classic enemies of mankind under international law.
But even here the will to prosecute will be crucial. As my colleague Eugene Kontorovich has observed, many modern nations catch and then release modern pirates because it is not worth the trouble of prosecution. And the inclination to release may be greater with terrorists, because holding them may inspire attacks or hostage taking by their confederates to get them back. Here again only United States leadership with the carrots (money and military force) and sticks (sanctions) will likely do the trick.
Our liberty as well as security is stake. In so far as terrorist groups obtain more money and create more threats to the homeland, we will need more surveillance to counter these dangers.
The Obama administration is always talking about the of benefits internationalism. Where is its initiative on a matter where international cooperation and agreement is indeed vital?