Report: American hostages at greater risk because European nations pay ransoms

LONDON (NBC News): A London-based think tank reports American hostages are at a greater risk of being murdered or tortured because European nations pay multimillion-dollar ransoms to terrorist groups. That’s in stark contrast to the U.S. policy of not paying ransoms to banned militant organizations, and has resulted in several high-profile beheadings of Americans by ISIS.

According to Hostage U.S., a charity supporting families of American captives, criminals and terrorist organizations kidnap between 200 and 300 U.S. nationals each year. Several European nations have reportedly paid out millions of dollars to see their citizens come home safe, despite a variety of international laws and agreements banning such payments to terror groups.

And while this may save lives in the short term, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said this approach is harmful in the long run. RUSI reports paying ransoms not only fuels more kidnappings and terror acts, it also endangers the lives of captives from countries who don’t pay up. That list includes the U.S., Canada and the UK.

The U.S. government estimated terror groups collected some $120 million in ransoms between 2005 and 2012, and ISIS pulled in $20 million in 2014 alone.

Countries such as France, Italy and Spain all deny paying ransoms, but in recent years they have all seen their citizens released by terrorist organizations which had demanded large sums of cash.

Tom Keatinge, the report's co-author and director of Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at RUSI, said there was "no question" these countries were paying ransoms, in the process prioritizing the safety of their individual citizens over collective safety from extremist organizations.

"There are some useful examples where these huge ransoms have allowed groups like the Taliban to retool and rearm," he told NBC News. "When countries start paying these sums of money, guess what? They start being more effective."

These countries were "talking out of the sides of their mouths" when they endorsed several United Nations resolutions banning payments to terrorists, according to Keatinge.

While the U.S. has banned families and private organizations paying ransoms to terror groups, in 2015 President Barack Obama softened his approach by allowing relatives to communicate with hostage takers without fear of prosecution.

But RUSI said that while some Western allies continued to take drastically different approaches to ransom payments, Americans, Canadians and Brits would continue to get tortured and killed.

"Governments know that engaging with, and offering large concessions to, designated terrorists creates greater insecurity for others, who may be targeted in the future," it said.

Ransom payments also mean that kidnapping is still a lucrative form of fundraising for ISIS and other terror groups and criminals.

The very act of paying ransoms to terrorists was "likely to be used to fund further terrorist acts and fuel more kidnappings," RUSI said, while adding that if countries "pay ransoms, they become complicit in the crimes and atrocities that are facilitated by their financial contribution to the terrorist organisation."

The report recommended several options to counter this: The first was an enforced ban on all ransom payments to eliminate hostage taking as a valuable source of income; the second was to allow the private sector to negotiate and handle all ransom payments; and the third was to allow private payments but make sure they were monitored by governments and international institutions.

Rachel Briggs, executive director at Hostage U.S., said that progress had been made but called on governments to offer better ways to support hostages and their families.

"It is our hope that the progress made by government and others over the past several years in the wake of increased hostage takings by terrorist organizations and criminal groups will continue," she said.