A six-month investigation conducted by Al-Jazeera has revealed that large sums of cash have been paid to armed groups by various state governments in exchange for hostage releases.
According to Syrian fighters, Italy paid millions of dollars for the release of an Italian and Belgian journalist. Italy also paid Somali pirates $525,000 in exchange for the release of an Italian-South African dual citizen and his partner. According to Italian and South African government reports, it was a raid that secured the hostage release, not a ransom payment. Al Jazeera also managed to acquire photos of an $11 million cash ransom payment by Italy to al-Nusra Front to release two aid workers.
Al Jazeera's documentary The Hostage Business revealed the multimillion-dollar payment made for the release of Italian journalist Domenico Quirico, and Pierre Piccinin da Prata, a Belgian journalist.
A middleman in the ransom payment, Mu'taz Shaklab, said "The kidnappers had asked for $10m, but I think they were given $4m". Mahmoud Daboul, a member of the Farouq Brigades, an armed group fighting in Syria claimed to be a witness to the transaction, claiming "the money consisted of packs of 100,000 dollars, each was in a separate plastic bag."
Al Jazeera also obtained photographs of the $11 million cash transaction between Nusra and Italy in 2015.
Somali pirate ransom
Intelligence cables leaked to Al Jazeera revealed that the Italian government paid $525,000 for the release of Bruno Pelizarri and his girlfriend Debbie Calitz, who were being held hostage in Somalia by pirates.
Pelizarri's sister Vera Hecht confirmed that the Italians were secretly involved, but that she had been warned to withhold the fact that they had paid a ransom. Calitz revealed that upon release, they were extensively debriefed about what they were allowed to divulge.
The Italian government did not comment on the Al Jazeera's findings except to state that, by policy, they did not pay ransoms.
US hostage policy
The Hostage Business also discusses the case of James Foley, an American journalist beheaded by Daesh in August 2014 after the US refused to negotiate with the militant group.
The US government has a much-criticized policy against negotiating with groups they consider to be terrorists.
Foley's mother stated, "Our government knows they failed us." She spoke in particular about Mark Mitchell, President Obama's counerterrorism adviser at the time, claiming that he threatened her family against trying to negotiate with Daesh.
"He had absolutely no compassion for us. All he knew was 'no concessions'…We were just appalled," she told Al Jazeera.
Mitchell denied the allegation that he made threats and said, "The idea that it's somehow shocking that a government official would encourage people to abide by the law, I think I find shocking in itself."
Mitchell went on to criticize European governments who paid ransoms, and stated that they should have "the moral courage to do so openly".
Much to Mitchell's discontent, the recent hostage policy review by Obama revised previous policies and is now allowing families to attempt paying ransoms without the threat of being prosecuted by the government.
He remarked, "It does not contribute to the safety of US citizens. Now, they are subject to being beggared by the hostage takers. There's no excuse. The hostage takers can just say, 'Clear out your bank accounts, sell your home - we want it all,' and they have no defense."
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