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Beheading puts ransom debate back into play

– The U.S. government certainly tried to save James Foley before he was executed by Islamic State extremists. Officials have revealed that a secret raid was conducted in a bid to save the American journalist and others. It failed because the hostages were not at that location at that moment.

However, there may have been one big tactic they didn’t try: paying a ransom. David Rohde, a well-respected journalist who works at the Atlantic and the Reuters news agency, touched upon this Wednesday when he wondered whether U.S. foreign policy had failed Foley with its refusal to negotiate with his captors.

Rohde points out that journalists of other nationalities were apparently released after their governments paid large sums to the Islamic State, something the U.S. government refuses to do (though private individuals and entities may).

Rohde knows firsthand what he is talking about. As a reporter working in Afghanistan in 2008, he was captured by the Taliban and held for seven months. No ransom was paid, but he eventually managed to escape.

His argument is bolstered by reports from The Associated Press that the Islamic State asked the Foley family for $132 million in exchange for Foley but were apparently rebuffed by the U.S. government.

It wasn’t about figures. One hundred million dollars is a lot of money, but a life is priceless. And while the United States generally refuses to negotiate with kidnappers, there are times it does, as shown by the recent exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders.

Instead, the core argument for governments not paying ransoms is specific: It removes a key motive for kidnapping foreign nationals in the first place and stops terrorist or criminal groups from getting huge sums of money.

Officially, most governments subscribe to this theory. In practice, however, the United States and Britain appear to be inconsistent in their refusal to pay ransoms, and many other nations appear to find loopholes.

“While France claims that it does not pay ransoms directly, it seems that the money is funneled through to the employer of the hostage, who is then responsible for the payment,” explains Martin Michelot, program and research officer at the German Marshall Fund’s Paris office. “This keeps the facade alive.”

According to a recent New York Times investigation, France has funneled $58 million in ransom payments since 2008, the most of any country. It was followed by Switzerland at $12.4 million and Spain at $5.9 million.

There may be repercussions for these countries – last year, there were more French hostages around the world than any other nationality, though this may also be a result of French intervention overseas in places such as Mali and Libya.

Conversely, Foley’s death shows that refusing to pay ransoms doesn’t always prevent future ones. An American citizen was taken hostage and held captive for almost two years, event though the United States is well known for its refusal to pay.

And if the reports of a $132 million ransom demand are true, it would suggest that the Islamic State didn’t really expect it to be paid.