The Policy Works Until it Gets Personal: Assessing Public Attitudes to Ransom Payment
Public opinion on paying hostage-takers reflects a broader contradiction between principle and practice.
In August 2014, as the Islamic State sought to consolidate its rapidly expanding territorial control across Syria and Iraq, the violence of its fighters descended to brutal depths. First, journalist Jim Foley was murdered by a group of British Islamic State fighters, followed in quick succession by other American, British and then Japanese journalists and aid workers. At the same time, hostages from other countries held by the Islamic State returned home, alive.
The Islamic State repeatedly and systematically enslaved, persecuted and murdered Yazidis and other minority and non-Muslim groups in the territory it occupied. But the cold-blooded murder of Western journalists and aid workers, broadcast via the Internet, brought the extent of their barbarism into the homes of citizens in countries unaccustomed to such horror.
This string of kidnappings at the hands of the Islamic State triggered a range of responses from the political leaders of the countries concerned, and a range of outcomes for those citizens held as hostages by the Islamic State. In 2013, at the G8 Summit in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, then UK Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that leaders had agreed to stamp out ransom payments to terrorist groups, with the leaders’ summit communiqué ‘unequivocally’ rejecting the payment of ransoms to terrorists, in line with the relevant United Nations Security Council Resolution.
From a purely technical and objective perspective, such a commitment made sense. Over the years since the 9/11 attacks, a concerted global effort has been made to deny terrorist groups the funding they need to survive, conduct training and plan and execute attacks. The effectiveness of this global effort remains open to question but paying ransoms to terrorist groups for the release of hostages certainly contradicts the letter of international law. Yet many governments clearly chose that route in response to the detention of their citizens by the Islamic State (and other jihadi groups), a decision that, whilst arguably detrimental in the medium term as it fuelled the coffers of these terrorist groups, was the immediate difference between life and death for those citizens held hostage. The recent release of the kidnapped Italian aid worker, Silvia Romano, has once again spurred rumour and speculation as to whether her captors – reported to be Al-Shabaab – also received a payment in return for her safe release.
According to new polling on the subject, it seems that public opinion reflects a similar contradiction between principle and practice when it comes to paying ransoms. RUSI recently partnered with YouGov to survey attitudes to the subject in six Western countries, including national samples in the US, France, Sweden, Denmark, Britain, and Germany.
Respondents were asked to what extent they support or oppose their government paying ransoms to various types of hostage-takers in order to secure the release of a kidnapped citizen from their country, including payment to ‘a lone criminal trying to rob a bank’, ‘an Islamist terrorist organisation’, ‘an organised crime group’ (OCG) and ‘a foreign government’.
In each case, the larger portion of people tended to oppose ransom payment, with each sample showing the strongest opposition towards paying an Islamist terrorist organisation. In Britain, for example, 58% of respondents said they oppose paying a ransom to Islamist terrorists in order to secure the release of a British hostage, versus just 11% expressing support. We find similar figures among British respondents for the other scenarios, including 54% oppose versus 14% support for a paying a bank robber, 55% oppose versus 12% support for a paying an OCG, and 52% oppose versus 13% support for a paying a foreign government.
This mood is broadly mirrored on the question of legality. Respondents were further asked if paying a ransom to the same categories of hostage-taker should or should not be illegal. In most cases, a clear majority or plurality answered that ransom payment should be ‘illegal’, again with terrorists stirring the strongest response. For instance, 55% of Britons stated that securing the release of a hostage by paying a ransom to an Islamist terrorist organisation ‘should be illegal’, compared with 17% saying the opposite – that it ‘should not be illegal’. By a similar token, the respective split in other country-samples was: 46% versus 23% in the United States; 58% versus 15% in France; 58% versus 14% in Sweden; 46% versus 21% in Denmark; and 53% versus 21% in Germany.
Predictably, however, the general balance of opinion reverses if the issue is personalised. Each sample was also asked if they would pay a ransom for the release of a relative held by an Islamist terrorist organisation, assuming that requisite money and physical capacity were available. In this case, by far the larger portion answers ‘yes I would’, including clear majorities or pluralities in each country. And while positive responses declined by some five to 15 percentage points when respondents were informed that such payments would be illegal, the overall sentiment remains consistent.
So how should governments interpret this contradiction? Aspiring to an ambition of universal non-payment of ransoms is clearly optimal. But official policy arguably needs to catch up with a more complex, modern relationship between rhetoric and reality. It is perhaps for this reason that US debate following the murder of its citizens at the hands of the Islamic State resulted in a more nuanced approach, which duly reaffirmed that Washington would not pay ransoms to terrorist groups, while essentially leaving the private option open, albeit without explicitly sanctioning payment by families. These survey results suggest that other governments might be well-served in considering a similar approach.
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample sizes were: US=1,243; France=1,006; Sweden=1,004; Denmark=1,015; Britain =1,695; Germany=2,097. Fieldwork was undertaken between 4–20 March 2020. The surveys were carried out online. For each country sample, results have been weighted and are representative of the adult population aged 18+. See here for a full breakdown of the survey questions and results.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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