The Ransom Dilemma

PRINCETON – Anyone who does not share the ideology of the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria is likely to agree that it is wrong for the group’s adherents to behead some of those they have held hostage. Much more controversial, however, are the secret decisions by European governments to pay such groups ransoms for the release of their nationals.

Although the Islamic State’s hostages have come from several countries, so far it has beheaded only those from the United States and the United Kingdom. The only European hostage reported to have been executed directly by the Islamic State appears to have been a Russian, Sergey Gorbunov, but little is known about him. No friend or relative has come forward, and no video of his death has been released. Russian officials have publicly doubted that he was a Russian citizen.

On the other hand, the Islamic State has released 15 hostages, including citizens of Italy, France, Switzerland, Denmark, and Spain.

Rukmini Callimachi, reporting for the New York Times, has explained the difference in treatment. The US and UK governments have a long-standing policy of refusing to pay ransoms to terrorist organizations. Moreover, when Michael Foley, brother of James Foley, one of the hostages, received a ransom demand, the FBI warned him that under US law, to pay money to terrorists is a crime. Foley was later executed.