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The United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 20.AMR ALFIKY/Reuters

Jessica Davis is the author of Illicit Money: Financing Terrorism in the 21st Century and a PhD candidate at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Alex Wilner is the co-editor of Deterrence by Denial: Theory and Practice and an associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

When terrorist groups kidnap aid workers, humanitarians, diplomats, tourists and others, the outcome for victims is usually bleak: years of neglect at the hands of their captors, and – if they’re lucky – release only after their families or governments pay a ransom demand. For the unlucky ones, including many Canadians, the outcome is far worse: death.

For terrorists, however, these awful acts are potentially lucrative opportunities. Many terrorist groups finance at least parts of their activities through kidnapping for ransom, and since 2010, more than US$1-billion has been paid to dozens of terrorist groups to free hostages from several countries.

In response to this particular method of terrorist financing, and in order to reduce funds available for terrorism, the international community has attempted to implement a moratorium on the payment of ransoms. Among other efforts, in 2014, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2133 called on states to “prevent terrorists from benefiting directly or indirectly from ransom payments or from political concessions and to secure the safe release of hostages.”

But while there is broad global agreement on the need for, and value of, a moratorium on ransom payments, the approach is flawed and fraying in practice. Despite the international consensus, many states do still pay ransoms to free their citizens.

The logic barring ransom payment is deceptively simple: An influx of money to terrorist groups can be used to launch more, and more lethal, attacks. But is it actually true?

Our research on that question, supported by a Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society grant and recently published in International Journal, focused on three terrorist groups: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and Abu Sayyaf. We found that the relationship between ransoms and terrorism is far more nuanced than the moratorium suggests. For only one group does the relationship between ransom payments and terrorist attacks appear to move in the expected direction – with more and worsening violence. In all other cases, ransom payments are either followed by steep, immediate declines in terrorist attacks, or upticks in the overall number of attacks but drops in their individual lethality.

What explains these counterintuitive findings?

Our working assumption is that some terrorist groups do use the money from ransom payments to launch more, and more sophisticated, attacks. But others divert these funds to cover the actual costs of keeping hostages alive, isolated and secure, or to help fund other operating expenses. Some groups might leverage ransom payments to pad the personal coffers of individual leaders and select group members. Ultimately, different groups will use ransom payment toward different ends, only some of which will lead to worsening violence.

This variation in outcomes suggests that different and divergent policy responses should be considered and weighed when contemplating a kidnapping-for-ransom case. A one-size-fits-all moratorium may not be the most optimal approach.

The catch, however, is that studies like ours are difficult to implement. Accurate, open-sourced data on ransom payment are relatively sparse, for instance. Some uncertainty in the historical record persists as a result.

There are also several competing explanations for our observations. Perhaps terrorist attacks and lethality drop despite ransom payments because of the successes of ensuing counterterrorist operations, but perhaps some groups face pressure to invest in recruitment and training activity, or in other long-term goals, such as holding onto and governing captured territory. Or, depending on the overall financial status of the group, perhaps terrorist attack rates simply lag far behind ransom payments, and more diverse data are required to tease out the specific relationship.

Certainly, more research and analysis into the kidnapping-for-ransom phenomenon and its relationship with terrorist activity are required. But our preliminary investigation should nonetheless spur much-needed debate about the continued utility of Canada’s broad “no ransom” policy.

Terrorist groups need money to survive; that much is clear. The global collective counterterrorism approach, and the counterterrorist financing infrastructure that supports it, aim to deprive groups of these funds in order to prevent terrorism. But the effect that certain elements of the approach have on achieving these collective goals, including the current “no ransom” policy, remains uncertain. Kidnapping for ransom, and the consequences of paying the ransoms, are largely understudied and misunderstood.

But what we do know is that real harms come to the victims of these kidnappings. Captives whose states adamantly refuse to pay for their release are often mistreated, and ultimately killed, if only to coerce other would-be paying states to negotiate the release of their own citizens. As such, the global counterterrorism financing community has yet to fully reconcile the unintended consequences of some of their policy choices. In response, better scholarly evidence should be used to develop more flexible and nuanced approaches and policies on whether and when states should and shouldn’t pay ransoms – a flexibility that will only benefit Canadians.

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