Over the past week, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen traveled to Europe to discuss the importance of preventing terrorist organizations from using kidnapping for ransom as a means of financing their operations. Meeting with senior government officials in France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, Under Secretary Cohen stressed that kidnapping for ransom is a growing and pressing threat, citing that Al Qa'ida affiliates have received an estimated ransom of $120 million across North Africa, Mali and Yemen in the last decade. Some of these affiliates have even shared strategies and tactics used in kidnapping operations with other extremist groups, making it all the more important to counter what Under Secretary Cohen describes as a "genuinely vicious cycle." In remarks delivered at the Chatham House in London on Friday, he laid out the exact stakes involved:
Ransom payments lead to future kidnappings, and future kidnappings lead to additional ransom payments. And it all builds the capacity of terrorist organizations to conduct attacks… [Al Qa'ida affiliates] use ransom money to help fund the full range of their activities, including recruiting and indoctrinating new members, paying salaries, establishing training camps, acquiring weapons and communications gear… and helping to support the next generation of violent extremist groups.
Al Qa’ida affiliates in Sahel and Yemen have been collecting enormous sums of money through kidnapping for ransom, and Under Secretary Cohen explained how the Treasury Department is helping governments adapt and stop this dangerous trend.
Our aim is to help governments develop the legal and regulatory framework, as well as the operational capacity, for effective anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing regimes… The U.S. Treasury Department works with vulnerable states to ensure that they criminalize the financing of terrorism according to international standards, and that they are able to identify and freeze terrorist transactions and assets. We do this because we know that the financial tools necessary to identify, trace, and even intercept terrorist funds are vital to combating kidnapping for ransom.
Under Secretary Cohen also cited the effectiveness of U.S. and U.K. policy of actively denying hostage takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession.
Refusing to pay ransoms or to make other concessions to terrorists is, clearly, the surest way to break the cycle, because if kidnappers consistently fail to get what they want, they will have a strong incentive to stop taking hostages in the first place. And recent kidnapping for ransom trends appear to indicate that hostage takers prefer not to take U.S. or UK hostages – almost certainly because they understand that they will not receive ransoms if they take American or British hostages, and because they fear a kinetic response if they do…
But Under Secretary Cohen made clear this does not mean that the U.S. government abandons its citizens who are taken hostage:
Far from it. Last January, for instance, U.S. Special Forces rescued a European and an American aid worker taken hostage by Somali gunmen, killing all nine kidnappers. That kinetic response demonstrated U.S. resolve, and put would-be hostage takers on notice that they should not expect the United States to abandon either its citizens or its commitment to make no concessions if they take Americans hostage.
Under Secretary Cohen's meetings across Europe are emblematic of the fact that stemming illicit finance requires building consensus and capacity for the international community to work closely together. Combating kidnapping for ransom requires constant vigilance and an adaptive approach, because the threat is both persistent and ever-changing, and the Treasury Department is working with other U.S. government agencies and foreign governments to meet this challenge. Going forward, the obligation to deprive terrorists of the financial means to plan, develop, and execute their deadly attacks demands that governments find a way to deny terrorists access to ransom payments.
Anthony Reyes is the New Media Specialist athe U.S. Department of the Treasury.