Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A better way to pay ransom to kidnappers

It all began in 2003, when a German official flew into the wilds of northern Mali with three suitcases full of cash to secure the release of 14 European hostages. That first big ransom breathed life into the militant group known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and laid the groundwork for a kidnap economy that now finances Islamist extremist groups around the globe.

Foreigners who stumble into this world are highly prized assets: They are tracked, abducted, sold from one militant group to another and held for months, or even years, in the hope of a multimillion-dollar payday. Such hopes are kept alive by France, Germany and other European governments that routinely facilitate ransom payments for the release of their own citizens.

The United States steadfastly refuses to pay ransom, which undoubtedly reduces the price that American hostages fetch in the kidnap economy. However, money isn’t the only motivator for those holding hostages; they are also used to demonstrate the groups’ ferocity, as shown recently by the Islamic State’s gruesome killings of two Japanese men. ...

The good news is there is a way to change this game, to turn the tables on terrorist kidnappers and undermine the kidnap economy. ...

Throughout the 1980s, federal investigators did not catch a single major business cartel, despite having a whole division at the Department of Justice devoted to the task. That’s because business cartels, groups of companies that work together in secret to fix prices, can be nearly impossible to detect. ...

That all changed, suddenly and dramatically, in 1993 when the Department of Justice instituted a new program offering complete immunity to the first firm in a cartel to confess. ...

And turn on each other they did; soon convictions and settlements in the United States alone were generating hundreds of millions of dollars in fines each year. ...

Imagine what would happen if the federal government were to offer a million-dollar reward and promise safety to anyone — Islamic State militant or not — who provided information that led to the rescue of American hostages, and the capture or killing of their kidnappers. Holding an American hostage would then become fraught with peril, no matter where the kidnappers might hide, as anyone, even one of their own, might turn on them at any time.
--David McAdams, NYT, on kidnapper jujitsu. HT: Marginal Revolution