The Government has been on the warpath again about ransom payments, saying that they are encouraging the growth of kidnapping across the world.
Last week, the Foreign Office claimed that ransom payments to al-Qaeda were directly financing terrorist acts, citing estimates that $60m has been paid to the group in the last five years.
And back at the G8 conference in June, David Cameron launched a new plan to get members of the G8 countries to sign up to a “tangible agreement” to ban such payments, as is already the case in Britain.
At first glance, it’s sensible stuff. Clearly it is not good to be handing over bags of ready cash direct to al-Qaeda, as the likes of France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland have done over the years. Showing bit of British backbone, the argument goes, might stop our European cousins funding terrorists – and maybe see their citizens targeted a bit less often.
Sadly, having spent time as as hostage myself, I am not sure it is as quite as simple as that. While researching my book on the subject, I spoke to a number of people involved in hostage negotiations. The reality is that where people’s lives are at stake, there are no really hard and fast rules, and probably never will be.
The first thing to bear in mind is that HMG’s own “backbone” on the question of ransoms is rather more flexible than people often think. For a start, ransoms are only prohibited in terrorist cases – in criminal kidnappings, such as piracy cases, there is nothing in British law that stops people or shipping firms paying out.
Instead, all the law does is prevent British officials “facilitating” the payment in any way. Indeed, during the Somali piracy epidemic of the last five years, the vast majority of multi-million dollar ransom payments coughed up by ship owners around the world have been negotiated, handled and delivered by British lawyers and security firms working for the London-based international shipping insurance market.
Another question is whether countries that have publicly stated policies of not paying ransoms – such as the UK and the US – actually make their citizens any safer. One consultant for a well-known international security firm told me that they had analysed all the available data on kidnappings by nationality, and that no correlation had emerged either way. In other words, French and Italians were never targeted in preference to Brits, for example.
Exactly why this is so is hard to say. But my own guess, based on experience of the countries where al-Qaeda operates, is that kidnappings by nature tend to be opportunistic. Visit the likes of Mali, Yemen or Iraq, and you will find that the few Westerners around tend to take considerable precautions to avoid being targets, be it through keeping a low profile, varying their routines, or travelling with armed guards and armoured cars. Kidnappers, therefore, have to take whoever they can get, whenever they can get them. Often it’s only after they abduct someone that they find out what nationality they are.
Finally, there is a legimate question to be asked about whether a rule that makes sense in Britain makes quite as much sense in the world’s more lawless corners. Some kidnap negotiators point out to me that however distasteful the notion of paying ransoms may be, in places like Mali or Yemen, where there is no proper police force, there simply isn’t much alternative.
Refusing to pay a ransom to a kidnapper in say, Britain, they agree, makes sense. We have a competent police force and CCTV everywhere, so the authorities can make a reasonable argument that the only way a kidnapper will get away with it is if the victim’s family coughs up without telling the police. But what about Yemen, where government forces often lack the strength to even enter areas where kidnappers hang out, never mind extract hostages safely?
Yes, you can always try an SAS rescue, but this is complicated diplomatically and brings its own very real risks. Only people who have watched Who Dares Wins too often think that the special forces will always prevail, as is shown by cases like that of aid worker Linda Norgrove, the British aid worker who died in a raid to free her from kidnappers in Afghanistan.
This is the argument that the shipping industry has put forward in response to criticisms that it has been too ready to pay ransoms to Somali pirates. In essence, their point is that while banning ransoms is a nice idea in the abstract, nobody wants to be the test case, especially not when scores of sailors are still languishing in pirate custody. They also point out that as employers, it is they, not governments, who would have to deal with the grieving (and angry and litigious) relatives of dead crewmen.
The strange thing is though, that the shipping industry has pointed this out to Mr Cameron already, after he ordered an earlier “task force” into the paying of ransoms to pirates just last year, following on from the international summit that he brokered on Somalia.
However, the said task force had no legal teeth. Instead, having asked the shipping industry to provide lengthy submissions on this, all it did was recommend “a set of policy options” for “the wider international community”. The word “ban” did not get much of a mention, much less the phrase “compulsory ban” or “immediate ban”. Which, in other words, means it was nothing other than a pointless talking shop, given that no other nations were under any need to pay heed it to.
All of which makes me wonder why Mr Cameron is talking the subject up yet again for the G8.
Frankly, if he really wanted to do something useful in this area, he might consider reviewing the current policy which prevents Foreign Office officials from lifting a finger to help any family who finds themselves in the position of having to pay a ransom in a criminal kidnapping case, such as relatives of the yachting couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were hijacked in Somalia. This is officially so that they are not seen to be condoning ransom payments, but in practice it just leaving families to their own devices in what is already a fiendishly difficult situation.
Rachel’s brother, Stephen, told me that when he finally got the cash together to pay his sister’s ransom – at least half a million of his own money – one of the biggest headaches he faced was actually getting out to Kenya without it being confiscated by customs on arrival, or simply nicked. As a farmer from Suffolk, he didn’t really know much about such stuff.
So he asked the Foreign Office if the cash might at least be transferred via the diplomatic baggage. His request, as he recalls, was met with “horror”, and in the end he had to spent an extra $12,000 hiring SAS men to chaperone it through. Had Kenyan customs decided to help themselves, there would have been nothing he could have done. Refusing to deal with kidnappers is fine as official Foreign Office policy, but when they know it’s happening anyway, it shouldn’t be an excuse for a bit of help behind the scenes.