May 24, 2002 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
That's the message terrorists worldwide received last month when
a U.S. official announced that Abu Sayyaf guerillas had been paid
$300,000 to release a Kansas couple they've now held captive in the
Philippines for an entire year.
The deal was negotiated by Paul Burnham, father of one of the
victims, with the help of local "mediator" Abu Sulaiman. The
ransom, culled from private resources, was delivered to Sulaiman in
late March, with the promise that the hostages, Martin and Gracia
Burnham, would be released "soon."
Once they had the money, though, the Abu Sayyaf informed Paul
Burnham that his son and daughter-in-law won't go free "until
additional demands are met."
On April 25, Paul Burnham went public, calling a Filipino radio
station to broadcast his plea that the Abu Sayyaf honor their
agreement. "If not," he said, "how can anyone trust the Abu Sayyaf
Indeed. If we can't trust terrorists who make their livings by
kidnapping people, who can we trust?
One can certainly sympathize with the families of the kidnap
victims. The impulse to ransom their loved ones was doubtless
heightened by the Abu Sayyaf's beheading of another kidnapped
American, Guillermo Sobero, last June. And the Philippine military
has looked nothing short of inept in its 10-month pursuit of the
guerilla group. That's why 660 U.S. troops were sent to supervise
operations and train Philippine soldiers.
But paying the Abu Sayyaf ransom is like giving them an advance
on their next kidnapping.
In fact, what emboldened the Abu Sayyaf to snatch the Burnhams
in April 2001 was a successful kidnap-for-ransom operation
involving European tourists that netted them $20 million the year
before. This windfall apparently convinced the Abu Sayyaf to
abandon bank robbery and village-pillaging to concentrate on a more
lucrative career in kidnapping.
Paying ransoms also attracts other criminally inclined
individuals. Membership in the Abu Sayyaf more than tripled -- from
300 to 1,000 -- after the first ransom check cleared.
Worse, profits from the ransom funded the operation. The Abu
Sayyaf used the cash to buy speedboats and state-of-the-art
telecommunications equipment that helped them elude the Philippine
Another ransom payment will reinforce the notion that kidnapping
pays. In South America, where ransoms are routinely paid, a culture
of kidnapping has developed. Three out of every four kidnappings
reported worldwide happen in South America.
In response to the rise in kidnappings, the State Department
recently altered its strict no-ransom policy to one that seeks "to
deny hostage takers the benefits of a ransom." This subtle change
gives them more latitude to use taxpayer money if it helps trace
the perpetrators. (Think exploding cash or marked bills.)
But in the Abu Sayyaf case, we know who they are, and we have
them trapped on an island.
Formal U.S. policy on dealing with hostage-takers is as good as
it's going to get. The problem lies when private individuals or
corporations decide to pay the hostage-takers with their own
Although the United States "strongly urges" private individuals
not to pay ransoms, it doesn't prohibit such payments. Nor should
it: Making this a crime won't solve the problem. In fact, it would
encourage desperate individuals to deal with kidnappers alone
without informing U.S. authorities, making it harder for the
government to identify and pursue kidnappers.
Ultimately, it's up to the families and employers of kidnapping
victims to decide whether to pay the ransom. But though it may seem
like the easy way out, there are many dangers in dealing with
professional criminals -- such as being duped.
More importantly, there is a moral imperative to resist entering
such a Faustian bargain. Private citizens must consider the
long-term consequences of paying ransoms. The reason their loved
ones were kidnapped in the first place is because the person in the
same situation before them gave into blackmail. And each act of
compromise by an individual or family further undermines the
security of every American abroad.
Put another way, paying the Abu Sayyaf ransom diminishes the
bravery of those who refuse to bargain with terrorists. It renders
meaningless the sacrifice of people such as Daniel Pearl.
Terrorists and criminals generally consider life cheap. From
their economic viewpoint, $150,000 per American is a handsome
profit. And if Americans keep paying ransoms, the terrorists and
other criminals surely will be happy to put more and more American
hostages on the market.
Paolo Pasicolan is a policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire