John Henry Cantlie, a British war photographer and correspondent who was kidnapped in Syria with James Foley in November 2012 and remains a hostage
In the past year, ISIS is estimated to have received over $35 million in ransoms. In the past twelve years, al-Qaeda hostage payments have rocketed from $200,000 to $10 million. Terrorist groups thrive off this perverse trade and many countries refuse to pay ransoms for fear of funding terrorism. Despite this worry, acquiescing to ransom demands may prove the rational choice for individual governments by eliminating the costly obligation to avenge executions.
One has only to look at the Jordanian outrage in response to the particularly brutal murder of Moath al-Kasasbeh to appreciate the power of public sentiment. Kasasbeh, a pilot whose plane crashed near the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, was burned to death by the terrorist group in early 2015. After a video of his murder was released, Jordan responded to calls from its populace to “annihilate” ISIS by drastically upping the scale of its operations in Syria. The circulation of the false claim that King Hussein, a trained fighter pilot, would himself fly sorties into Syria demonstrated the depth of public anger.
Jordan’s reaction to Kasasbeh’s death shows that governments will go to great lengths to sate their populations’ thirst for revenge. After graphic killings, especially those as viscerally offensive as immolation, calls for action against the perpetrators are loud. Pro-intervention sentiment is high and governments are likely to favour escalation, particularly when this fate befalls aid workers and reporters. All of this has the power to push states into joining counterterrorism efforts or deepening their existing commitments. Governments feel the need to respond to ISIS executions lest their own citizens see them as cowardly.
Responses like these exact a large toll on members of the anti-ISIS coalition. Military operations aren’t cheap — President Obama recently requested $5 billion in funds to fight the group. Factor in the additional cost of (failed) Special Forces operations to save kidnapped victims and the real cost — both in dollars and in lives — is much higher.
The psychological effect on coalition members is also powerful. With its history of failure in the region, the West has long wished to disengage militarily from the Middle East foreign policy sinkhole. However, hostage executions have dragged the US and its allies back to the sites of their famous failures. Even if America had hoped to place more of the burden upon the shoulders of its regional allies, ISIS’ recorded executions of Americans demand that the US keep the Middle East firmly within its focus. With President Obama’s recent request for Authorisation to Use Military Force against ISIS, it is clear that American involvement in the region will continue for years to come.
The Japanese experience exemplifies how hostage executions can suck countries into conflicts they have no desire to engage in. Like Jordan and the US, Japan has been forced to strengthen its support for the anti-ISIS coalition after the executions of Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto. With only a very small Muslim population, situated far from the Middle East, Japan should have little interest in being involved in the region. However, the executions have forced their hand — Japanese lawmakers unanimously agreed to increase coalition aid amid public outrage at the killings. Any future commitment will no doubt continue to be motivated by the executions of its own citizens.
Countries do have an opportunity to dodge these revenge obligations — pay the ransom demand. Granted, some may label nations like France and Italy as cowardly for negotiating with terrorists, while others assert that ransom payments directly support terrorist groups’ activities and incentivise future kidnappings. Nevertheless, they represent a rational choice for many countries faced with a hostage situation. If their citizens can be freed safely and secretly, the incentives for action against the perpetrators are much weaker.
After all, domestic populations do not demand military intervention unless they have a strong emotional conviction motivating them — hostage killings provide this push. Averting these executions results in fewer calls for action against terrorist groups. Ransoms are a small price to pay to avoid being pulled into quagmire conflicts like those in the Middle East.
As such, ransom payment is a rational choice for any individual country. Despite this fact, ISIS will have to be eliminated eventually. Whether this happens sooner, due to expanded operations motivated by jihadist brutality, or later, the coalition will have to expend a considerable amount to remove the group’s hold over Syria and Iraq. Paying ransoms is not sustainable if everyone does it — it fights the symptoms of terrorism while fuelling the underlying disease, making its ultimate removal far more difficult.
In light of this, it is important to note that while greater counterterrorism commitments may be burdensome for individual nations, collectively they will inflict significant damage on ISIS. States may pretend that they can hide behind the rational choice of paying ransoms — but the international community, as a whole, cannot.
Greater retaliation elicited by ISIS’ hostage murders makes executions look like strategic blunders. However, we cannot judge them as such — ISIS is a millenialist cult with its own machinations. To them, fury at their brutal videos only hastens the end times and their inevitable triumph over the infidels.
Pictured in the video of the beheading of ‘Abdulrahman Kassig is Dabiq, a small town in northern Syria that ISIS considers to be the location of one of the final battles before their march upon Constantinople. To them, every execution brings the day closer when Dabiq’s dusty plains will become the graveyards of those who oppose them. We can talk about rationality, but when dealing with ISIS, reason ceases to hold much importance.
Alex Davies is an independent major at Cornell University, studying international relations and computer science.