John Ridsdel execution: Why refusing to pay ransoms may not protect Canadians

The capture and subsequent killing of John Ridsdel, one of two Canadians who were being held hostage by an al-Qaeda-linked group in the Philippines, has renewed debate over whether governments should pay ransoms to secure the freedom of their citizens.

Trudeau says Canada won't pay ransoms 'directly or indirectly'

Canadian John Ridsdel was killed by the Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the Philippines Monday. (@JBR10000/Twitter)

The capture and subsequent beheading of John Ridsdel, one of two Canadians who were being held hostage by an al-Qaeda-linked group in the Philippines, has renewed the debate over whether governments should pay ransoms to secure the freedom of their citizens.

The Canadian government, like many other governments, has an official policy not to pay ransoms for its citizens. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reinforced this policy on Tuesday, stating emphatically that "Canada does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists, directly or indirectly." 

Ransoms fund terrorist organizations and make Canadians travelling abroad potential targets for more abductions, Trudeau warned. But some analysts say that governments need to be flexible when it comes to dealing with kidnapping of their citizens.

"If our mission is to preserve life, which it should be, then governments should move heaven and earth to try and get that hostage out by any means available," said Fred Burton, a former special agent with the U.S. State Department who worked on several hostage cases. 

'A good sound bite'

"It's a good sound bite to say that we don't [pay], but in reality, that's not going to reduce the risk to a Canadian or American national or a Western national in the eyes of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda," said Burton, currently the vice-president of intelligence for Stratfor. "Meaning, it's one thing to say that, but it's not going to reduce the threat of kidnapping for political or criminal purposes."

There should be ambiguity in the background with how you deal with every individual case- Adam Dolnik, specialist in hostage negotiations 

There have been indications that Canada may have, on occasion, shown some flexibility. In 2013, an al-Qaeda letter obtained by The Associated Press revealed that militants had been paid $1.1 million for the release of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay in 2009. It's unclear what role, if any, the Canadian government played in their release, and Canadian officials at the time refused to comment on the report.

Many countries publicly take the stance that they won't give in to ransom demands, yet are widely known to have paid up. In 2014, the New York Times found that some  European governments, despite their public denials, had secretly funnelled $125 million over a six-year period through proxies to al-Qaeda and associated groups to free their citizens. 

3rd parties do the negotiating

Quite often governments will employ the services of third-party companies that negotiate with the hostage takers.

"Some of those governments have rules about dealing with kidnappers so they want plausible deniability," said Derek Baldwin, director of worldwide operations for IBIS International, a company that deals with kidnap and ransom situations. "So they call us or somebody like us."

Yet there are some countries, particularly the U.S. and the United Kingdom, known to be quite rigid, and to adhere to a tough "no concessions" stance when it comes to government officials negotiating or paying ransom with hostage-takers. (The U.S. has laws making it a criminal act for anyone, including family members or companies, to pay ransom, but there is no record of prosecutions of families or companies who do pay up.) 

In 2012, in an often-cited "no concessions" speech, David S. Cohen, the current deputy director of the CIA, made the case against paying money, saying that "hostage-takers looking for ransoms distinguish between those governments that pay ransoms and those that do not – and make a point of not taking hostages from those countries that do not pay ransoms."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada 'does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists.' (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

He said that kidnapping for ransom trends suggested that hostage takers prefer not to take American or British hostages because they understand that they will not receive ransoms.

But Brian Michael Jenkins, an expert on terrorism who has studied kidnappings and ransoms for over four decades, said there is no evidence to support that claim. 

Comparing the number of kidnappings of U.S. and U.K. citizens, with kidnappings of Germans and French citizens, whose governments have reportedly secretly arranged ransom payments, reveals that "first and second place is occupied by the Americans and the British," he said.

'Terrorists are opportunists'

"That simply suggests that terrorists are opportunists and they kidnap foreigners who are available," said Jenkins, senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp., adding that U.S. and British nationals may spend longer times in captivity and are more likely to be killed. 

None of this is an argument for a national policy for paying ransom, he said, but he pointed out that the most powerful deterrent for  kidnappings, according  to the research, is apprehending the kidnappers and destroying groups engaged in kidnapping. 

Adam Dolnik, a specialist in hostage negotiations and terrorism, said governments should have a declared policy that they won't pay ransoms. But they should  also have an undeclared policy in the background, "where things are done in secret that are not disclosed to the public but should be a bit more flexible." 

"​Of course it shouldn't be a policy of 'we're paying ransom' because that's a really bad precedent to set, but there should be ambiguity in the background with how you deal with every individual case," he said.

The basic policy should be to engage in negotiations and drive the ransom price down, he said. From the perspective of the hostage-taker, they have incurred expenses in keeping the hostage alive, and people in their network or in the wider community are expecting some kind of payment. 

There may be cases where smaller payments are made that do not reward kidnappers in any major way, he said. For example, he said, a couple years after the kidnapping, a payment could be made to reimburse the captors' expenses, which will allow them to save face and will help get the hostage back.

"Expecting them to release the hostage for nothing is naive," Dolnik said.