Offering a Bounty on our own Heads


Offering a Bounty on our own Heads

May 24, 2002 3 min read

Policy Analyst


Americans aren't just wealthy. They're soft.

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 again?"

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 military.

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 funds.

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 (, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire