Should Britain pay ransoms to save lives?

Edwin Dyer was murdered by al-Qaeda in 2009

Is holding a British passport a “death certificate” if you fall into the hands of terrorist kidnappers? That is the view of Hans Dyer, whose brother Edwin was killed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2009 after Britain declined the group’s ransom demands. Mr Dyer was speaking to Wednesday’s New York Times, which had a report comparing HMG’s stance on ransoms to that of our European counterparts, who are more likely to cough up.

Normally, the only glimpse we ever get of this difference in national policies is in the suspicious ease with which countries like France and Italy get their citizens freed from kidnappers’ clutches in the likes of Syria or Iraq. TV footage will show a French or Italian minister triumphantly greeting the bedraggled captives as they get off a plane, and there will be rumours – neither confirmed nor denied – that several million dollars changed hands.

In Edwin Dyer’s case, however, the difference in national policies played out in the starkest possible way. A Swiss couple and a German pensioner that he was kidnapped alongside were released after their respective governments paid out an estimated £6.3 million to the kidnappers.

But for Edwin – who, as this newspaper reported, acted heroically by looking after the Swiss hostage when he fell ill – the nightmare in the desert ended with him being taken away from his fellow captives and murdered. The reason being that Britain had refused to pay up, despite warnings from a go-between about where such a stance would lead.

“The British wanted me to send a message saying one last time that they wouldn’t pay,” the intermediary told the New York Times. “I warned them, ‘Don’t do this’. They sent the message anyway.”

What are we to make of this? Were the mandarins in the Foreign Office willing to let an innocent man die to ram home their message for the longer-term good?

Having followed Mr Dyer’s case in some detail – and having also been kidnapped once myself – I am not sure his fate was cast in quite such black and white terms as it might seem.

For one thing, hostage negotiations generally offer endless chances for fudge, and I suspect that had the opportunity presented itself, he could have been freed as part of a “package” with the other hostages, allowing Britain to save face.

I’m more inclined to believe a different version of events, told to me by another ex-AQIM hostage from the time, which is that since AQIM had around half a dozen Western hostages – and had ambitions to take more – it chose to use Mr Dyer as an example of what would happen if people didn’t pay up.

Either way, the New York Times article – written by the highly-respected west Africa veteran Rukmini Callamachi – has reopened the question of whether it is right for different Western governments to have different policies on paying ransoms.

Both Britain and America have made it clear that they would like European nations to take a tougher line, with a Foreign Office report last year claiming that £60m has been paid in ransoms to al-Qaeda-linked groups in the last five years. And as Vicki Huddleston, a former US state department official, tells the New York Times: “The Europeans have a lot to answer for… the danger of this is not just that it grows the terrorist movement, but that it makes all of our citizens more vulnerable.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic. Yet efforts led by David Cameron to get our European partners to sign up to a new agreement declaring banning ransoms seem doomed to failure, for the simple reason that most European governments are not prepared to let any of their kidnapped citizens become the “test case” for any new “no ransoms” policy.

In part, this reflects the fact that European governments are generally less hawkish, and see the current wave of al-Qaeda kidnappings as being partly a result of America and Britain’s activities in Iraq. But European diplomats I have spoken to also feel that Britain’s “no ransoms” stance is somewhat unpragmatic in the modern age, and belongs to an era when as a colonial power we held all the aces.

It may have worked back in the days of empire, they argue, when upstart natives who kidnapped Britons could expect to meet a very painful, and if necessary collective, punishment. But in the post-9/11 world, where certain terrorist groups have no compunction about killing hostages – or indeed dying themselves – it no longer has quite the same effect.

The other question is whether British or American citizens are actually less at risk of kidnap because of their governments’ tougher stance. And here, once again, the answer is far from clear. One international security firm that did a confidential analysis a couple of years ago told me that there was no indication that French or Italians were taken in preference to Britons or Americans. Quite why this is, nobody is sure, but the one possible reason is that in most countries, kidnapping tends to be a crime of opportunity, where abductors operate not by which passport someone carries, but whether they are an easy target.

More to the point, though, Britain’s public stance against ransom paying is not quite what it seems. For while the Foreign Office may tut about the £60m paid to al-Qaeda in ramsoms, it is rather quieter about the much larger sums paid out to Somali bandits by the London-based insurers working for shipping industry during the piracy epidemic of the last five years.

The technical difference is that since the pirates are merely common criminals, rather than terrorists, such ransoms are not illegal. The moral difference, however, is rather less clear, and anyone who thinks that the millions of dollars in ransom drops that have landed in Somalia in recent years has not indirectly benefited groups like al-Shabaab is deluded.

However, were the maritime industry not able to buy its way out of trouble in this fashion, most global shipping in the Indian Ocean would probably have stopped years ago, and the world’s economy would have nosedived.

In other words, had Mr Dyer been kidnapped by pirates, not al-Qaeda, the question of whether his British passport was a death sentence would probably never have arisen.

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