The World

Why the U.S. Made a Deal for Bowe Bergdahl but Not James Foley

James Foley in Libya in 2011.

Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

The New York Times is reporting that prior to the killing of journalist James Foley, ISIS demanded a $100 million ransom for his release. Writing for Reuters, David Rohde, who as a reporter for the Times was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2008 but managed to escape from captivity after seven months, argues that the U.S. policy of not paying ransoms for terrorist hostages may have led to Foley’s death.

The moral question of whether to pay ransoms to terrorist groups—which I also wrote about in the context of the Boko Haram kidnappings in the spring—is an agonizing one. It’s hard to stand on principle after reading the accounts of what the Foley family has been through over the past 21 months, or taking into account ISIS’s threat that Steven Sotloff, a journalist for Time who is also in the group’s custody, will be next.

The United States’ no-ransom policy also stands in contrast to the policy of European governments, which often do make under-the-table deals to bring their citizens home. The consequence is that while dozens of European citizens have been released by terrorist groups during the last half-decade or so, very few from America or the United Kingdom—which also generally doesn’t pay ransoms—make it out alive. According to Rohde, due to these divergent practices “at least one major aid organization is not sending U.S. aid workers to areas where they might be abducted. Instead, they are sending citizens from European countries with governments that will pay ransoms.”

Why would the U.S. resist paying ransoms? Because the money that has been paid to terrorists has done undeniable damage, providing al-Qaida-linked groups with an estimated $125 million in revenue since 2008. The group’s North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, has proved particularly adept at the practice. These payments may now make up the bulk of the revenue supporting al-Qaida affiliates.

But again, it’s not that simple. The tough-guy “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” mantra sounds great in practice, but almost all governments do it from time to time. The U.S., of course, released five Taliban detainees from Guantánamo Bay earlier this summer in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s argument that the U.S. “didn’t negotiate with terrorists” because the deal was facilitated by Qatari intermediaries is a bit of a stretch. And Israel, which no one has ever accused of being soft on terrorism, released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured IDF solder Gilad Shalit (though dozens of them were subsequently rearrested during the recent violence in Gaza).

As counterterrorism scholar Peter Neumann argued in a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, governments must at times negotiate and even grant concessions to groups it considers to be terrorists. The decision about whether to do so should be made less on the basis of the group’s relative odiousness than on whether such a deal could help stop violence.

The British government eventually had to sit down with the IRA. Colombia’s president is currently involved in controversial talks with the FARC to end the country’s decades-old unrest. As I argued after the Bergdahl swap, the deal should be seen less in terms of what the U.S. was willing to give up for one soldier than as the Obama administration settling unfinished business before it pulls troops out of Afghanistan and gets out of the business of fighting the Taliban entirely.

But a truce, or even a de-escalation of hostility, between the U.S. government and ISIS or any of its former affiliates in al-Qaida is hard to imagine. While the payment of a ransom could secure the release of a prisoner, it can do little beyond that except provide the group with much-needed funding. It would also encourage more kidnappings, both by ISIS and other groups that would be inspired by its example.

In this case, the U.S. government policy seems like the right one. As Rohde argues, however, it would be helpful if all Western governments were on the same page.