The art of ransom payments

Wesley Wark talks about the art of international hostage negotiation.

Wesley Wark talks about the art of international hostage negotiation

Louis Guay, left, and Robert Fowler attend a reception in Bamako, Mali, on April 23, 2009, after being released by al-Qaeda members who had held the UN envoys hostage for four months. ((Harouna Traore/AP))

In December 2008, Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were ambushed and kidnapped by al-Qaeda members in the central African country of Niger, where the two men were on assignment as UN envoys. They were held hostage for four months.

A U.S. cable newly circulated by the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks suggests a ransom was paid to secure their release in April 2009. The document from the U.S. State Department says a Libyan official told the U.S. ambassador in Tripoli that two Canadian officials were released "in return for a ransom payment."

This contradicts a statement made in April 2009 by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"Canada is always willing to pursue negotiated resolution to these kinds of issues," Harper said at the time. "But as you know, the government of Canada's position is clear in these things: We do not pay ransom and we do not release prisoners."

Harper claimed the governments of Mali and Burkina Faso negotiated the release of the men, adding, "What efforts or initiatives may have been undertaken by other governments are questions you'll have to put to those governments."

Wesley Wark is a professor of history at the University of Toronto and an associate with the Munk Centre for International Studies. A specialist in national security policy, espionage and counter-terrorism, Wark is the author of Twenty-First Century Intelligence. He spoke to CBC News about the art of hostage negotiation and the paying of ransoms.


What do you know about how this negotiation began?


The initial engagement by the Canadian government came on two levels. The lead would have been taken by Foreign Affairs, in the sense of contacting governments in the region to put together a co-operative network to find out what they could do and what assistance those governments could provide, as well as talk to key allies with the capacity to reach into those areas — obviously the United States, with a growing interest in the Sahel region and security forces in the area as well as the French, similarly positioned; and among regional powers, the Algerians, who have their own eye on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and are engaged in their own pretty ferocious war.


Plus an intelligence manhunt, which the Canadians would have been involved in, in association with their allies — and the allies, the Americans, the British, the French would have had local resources to collect intelligence and located the kidnappers and figure out what was being done. But the Canadians did have some resources that they could bring to bear.


The touchy part from there is contact and negotiation, and it’s touch and go in all kinds of ways. It has to be done secretly, it has to be done in such a way that you don’t jeopardize the lives of the hostages, if you can avoid it, and you have to avoid being put on the public stage of being the recipient of ransom demands, if you’re a government. Because once you’re in that situation, you’re backed into a corner.


Usually, the state response in the West is, 'We don’t negotiate with terrorists.' Whereas what you’re really trying to do, in terms of policy, is maintain flexibility. The challenge of these kinds of hostage situations, where great political sensitivities are involved, is to, on the one hand, maintain the official posture of no negotiations with hostage-takers and terrorists and, on the other hand, secure release. That’s hard to square.


How do you pay a ransom without being seen to do so?


What you would want to do, at least to sustain the appearance of the policy of no negotiations with terrorist groups, no payment of ransoms, is to find third parties. You have to ask if the only likely successful outcome to this hostage-taking is a ransom, which was probably the determination the Canadian government came to, because the alternative of waiting it out didn’t seem feasible and attempting a hostage rescue operation was probably ruled out of court — wisely, given the difficulties of such a thing.


Those third parties can be other governments or NGOs or middlemen of various kinds. But what you create, in the official jargon, is plausible deniability. Which simply means that you can say, with a degree of honesty and believability, that 'I didn’t pay.' The money can never be traced, really.


Is there a general protocol that each of these negotiations follows?


What is critical in any one of these cases is the known modus operandi of the group. That makes it easier to know how to engage in these negotiations, because you know how they’ve done it in the past or how they wanted to do it.


And personalities are always important. You’re looking for trusted interlocutors, both operating on your behalf and the individuals being talked to, to the extent that you hope that whatever bargain is approved is going to be upheld. So it's personalities and known track records that determine the style of the negotiations and the process.


In the Fowler-Guay case, we don’t know how money changed hands, but we do know that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM], by Fowler’s own account, had a pretty scripted plan for how they were going to release Fowler and Guay, which included an elaborate videotaped send-off ceremony and a very long drive across the desert to distance the hostage release from the area of operations of the group that had seized them.


Has the ransoming process changed as a result of the war on terror?


I don’t know that it has. The official policy has been strengthened and sustained rhetorically, the commitment is there — no ransom payments to hostage-takers and terrorist groups.


In the AQIM case, it’s known that these hostage sums that they’re acquiring are going into the purchase of weapons and a new cadre of fighters. And some part of it is being paid as a tie to al-Qaeda itself. So you’re really feeding the network of terror, but sometimes you just don’t have any alternative. Because you don’t have the intelligence capacities to track the hostage-takers down, or you don’t have the paramilitary capabilities and likelihood of success to affect any kind of rescue under fire.


Is there a documented policy of not paying ransoms in Canada?


I’m not absolutely sure if it’s ever written down. Canada would follow two leads on this. One is a very strong line taken by successive American administrations going way back to the Iranian hostage takers. The other is there are general United Nations formulas. Just in terms of UN Security Council resolutions on terrorist crimes, I think one of things that emerges from them — it’s not a binding resolution — but the international community should not resort to negotiations with terrorists groups whenever they can avoid doing so.


Are there lingering resentments between countries when one country caves in to a ransom request?


I think there’s bound to be. I think there were all kinds of signals that a variety of countries were very displeased at the Canadian decision on how to secure the release of Fowler and Guay.


The British government we know was very displeased because they still had a hostage in the hands of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb , who was subsequently executed. Whatever the degree of resentment, it must have been present.


I suspect that the Americans weren’t fully on board with this Canadian decision either, because it reverberates in terms of how the American government might find itself responding in similar circumstances.


I suspect that the Algerian [government] was very displeased, because they're the country that finds itself most engaged with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its activities. And the Algerians don’t, on the whole, negotiate with the AQIM.


Do any Western countries have a policy of paying ransom?


No government that I can think of would or could have such a policy. I think countries are graded on a not-very-public scale of greater or lesser willingness. Some countries put themselves forward as facilitators, like the Swiss, who see this as part of their often-exercised role as a neutral and official protecting power for negotiations.