The recent revelations about payments made by European governments to secure the release of hostages held by ISIS raise a fascinating set of issues and an apparent moral dilemma. In a couple of extended, detailed, and carefully researched articles published by The New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi documents the extent of the complicity between various European nations and international terrorist organizations. It is estimated that al-Qaeda and its direct affiliates have made $125 million from kidnappings since 2008, including $66 million in the last year alone, which may account for about half of the operating budget of these groups.
The case of ISIS is even more extreme. Emerging out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war, the group that has come to be known as ISIL or ISIS, or the more ontological IS, gradually captured and gathered together twenty-three foreign hostages from twelve countries, the majority of them Europeans. (This is not counting the forty-six Turks and three Iraqis taken during the fall of Mosul in June this year.) They were initially held in a prison under the Children’s Hospital of Aleppo and subsequently transferred to a building outside an oil installation in Raqqa in eastern Syria, the current capital of ISIS.
Notably, the two American and two British hostages—James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and Alan Henning—who were horrifically beheaded between mid-August and early October of this year were in this group, as was a Russian captive, Sergey Gorbunov, who was shot dead last spring, after it became clear the Russian government had little interest in his case.
So where are all the rest, who mostly came from continental Europe? For the most part, safely back home because their governments negotiated with ISIS for their release. Details are murky, but it would appear that, from among the twenty-three, almost 6 million euros was paid for the release of three Spanish aid workers, followed by a reported $18 million for four French journalists, and substantial payments for an Italian aid worker, and a Danish photojournalist, who was released after the family apparently raised the money for the ransom. (It should also be noted that, according to press reports, the forty-six Turkish hostages and the three Iraqis may have been released in a prison swap for 180 Islamic militants—including two British jihadists, Shabazz Suleman and Hisham Folkard, being held by Turkish authorities. President Erdogan of Turkey denied that any ransom had been paid, but was rather cagey about the details of the negotiations.)