ISS: Kidnap for ransom – to pay or not to pay?

Written by ISS Africa

It is one of the best-kept secrets in the world. As freed hostages step on the tarmac after being released by terror groups in places like Mali, Nigeria or Yemen, no one dares to reveal whether a ransom had been paid to the kidnappers. 

Invariably, governments deny having handed over the huge sums requested by terrorists. Too much is at stake. Lately, more and more governments are advocating for a ban on such payments. Yet experts believe that, faced with a moral dilemma and pressure of public opinion, many governments still pay millions of dollars in ransom money to terror groups.

As South Africans continue to wait for news of schoolteacher Pierre Korkie, who was kidnapped along with his wife in Yemen last year, analysts indicate that there is a worrying new trend of kidnappers increasingly targeting locals in the African countries where they operate. In its latest risk report, consultancy Control Risk Management cites Mali, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan as the having the highest risk for kidnapping worldwide.

In Africa, Nigeria, Mauritania, Niger, southern Algeria, Kenya and parts of Sudan are also on the list of high-risk places where terror groups engage in kidnapping. Other studies also indicate that Nigeria and Mexico still top the list when it comes to the number of kidnappings for ransom that are carried out annually.

Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Senior Researcher Martin Ewi says kidnapping for ransom has become one of the most important sources of income for terror groups. ‘They use the money to buy sophisticated weapons and to expand their terrorist operations,’ he explains. A declassified August 2013 report by the UK government states that at least US$70 million was paid to terrorists in the previous three to four years, and that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in the Sahel, has collected at least US$45 million in ransom payments from various governments. ‘It is the single largest source of income for a number of key groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] and AQIM,’ the report states.

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