Should US Pay Ransom to Terrorists?

It has come out that just before ISIS executed US journalist James Foley, it made a ransom demand for him. Continental European countries, notably France, have been paying ransom to get back their nationals. The US policy is that the government will not do so. BTW, the unspoken rule is that private citizens may take this on themselves even though US law on its face would prohibit it (keep in mind however that the amounts demanded are huge).

Is this the right policy? BI reports that there is some debate over this. And recognizing the sensitivity of the matter, I thought I would weigh in with a quick comment.

A lot depends here on the extent to which you think we are really “at war” with terrorism. If we are “at war” with terror as a strategy, we have taken on the goal of ending the use of this strategy. So far, the US has pursued this goal primarily using force, with the invasions of two countries, drone strikes, renditions, detention, etc.  We also rely on secret monitoring to try to intercept terrorist messaging and prevent attacks. But that does not mean force and snooping are the only tactics we should pursue. If we are serious about ending terrorism, we should take our goal of ending terrorism into account into each and every way that we deal with terrorist groups.

My own view is that paying ransom, especially huge sums, would work against this goal. And I think ending terrorism is necessary. So I would not be in favor of a policy change.

But I would not stop there. We might ask ourselves why terrorism has evolved into the global phenomenon that it is today? Tough question. But I think we can assume that terrorism did not just arrive out of nowhere. It has grown out of festering conflicts that involve failed states. How we deal with festering conflicts and failed states will affect the future course of global terrorism.

So far so good. But how do we deal with festering conflicts and failed states? Back in the 1990’s (after the fall of the Soviet Union) the US and Europe engaged in what we now call “nation building”. These types of efforts have been discredited in the US after nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan did not work. Too bad. Because whether nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan worked or not, it was pretty much the only tool we had other than force to stop terrorism. And BTW, other nations still pursue nation building rather actively. But that is another story.

Back to the US strategy. So why did nation building not work in Iraq and Afghanistan? Part of the reason, in my humble view, is that the US has not invested in understanding what types of nation building work and what do not. We are not very good at it. For example, we do not have a credible institutional framework that is dedicated to nation building. In case your are wondering, USAID and the World Bank do related stuff, but do not accept accountability for nation building results. In light of more recent events, including but not limited to the emergence of groups like ISIS, we might want to re-think our commitment to these types of efforts. We should figure out how to get better at it.

If you don’t think it is worth it, you might consider a warning by security expert Bruce Schneier. Bruce argues that rapid advances in technology will make it more and more difficult for government to stop terror that is empowered by better and cheaper technology. The logic is for government to “beef up” its use of data and coercive power, meaning more stuff like the NSA does now. We get less freedom and this still  may not stop a major high tech terror attack. Why not? Because government and corporate institutions adapt to new technology slower than distributed tech experts can.

What does this mean?  Good question. You might ask yourself why ISIS just executed a US journalist. It was not because the journalist had done anything to them. It has to do with engaging the mighty US as a nation. ISIS knows that if it publicly stands up to the US, it gains influence. And it knows that if it can operate inside two failed states – Iraq and Syria – it will be difficult for the US to destroy it militarily. That dynamic is not likely to change. So if groups like al quaeda, ISIS, et al want to engage the US to gain influence, they have an incentive to destabilize states and attack the US in spectacular fashion from these conflict zones — if they can. And Bruce is warning that the “… if they can” part is morphing to make big attacks easier over time rather than harder.  That is a scary prospect and that is why I support new thinking about what a “war against terror” should look like. Let’s not just use force. We can be and should be smarter than that.


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