Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor of international relations at Carleton University, and a former national security analyst with the federal government.
Canada is no stranger to kidnapping for ransom operations targeting its citizens. In the past seven years, there have been several high-profile kidnappings of Canadians by terrorist groups, particularly in Africa. In all of these cases, the federal government maintained its stance of not paying a ransom – a stance that mirrors that of Canada's closest allies. Nevertheless, it is clear that in most, if not all of these cases, some kind of ransom was paid either by a foreign government or by desperate families through private security firms. It is not known the extent to which Canadian government officials knew or were involved. However, it suggests that Canada's policy may be more flexible on this point than it professes, reflecting the complex nature of the problem.
There can be no doubt that kidnapping for ransom (KFR) provides terrorist groups, and their purported causes, much desired publicity and international press. Additionally, terrorist groups get an opportunity to demonstrate that they are targeting foreigners as part of their larger struggle.
Because the primary incentive for KFR is financial, combating them should be seen as part of the larger struggle against terrorism financing. Ransoms are a key source of funding through which groups can generate capacity in terms of recruiting and paying fighters and funding operations.
Given the murkiness of the practice, there are no reliable statistics on the number of individuals taken hostage, or the amount of money raised by terrorist groups over the years. Nevertheless, the practice is believed to be extremely lucrative and to have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for al-Qaeda-linked groups alone. In fact, all al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates are known to have engaged in KFR operations in 2014, and most in 2015.
Importantly, terrorist groups often turn to KFR when they come under counterterrorism pressure. This is certainly the case of Abu Sayyaf, the group responsible for kidnapping and killing John Ridsdel. This group has been able to regenerate several times over the past 20 years after the loss of leadership and group fragmentation, thanks to money gained from KFR operations. While it is essential for states to counter terrorism, KFR may represent the dark side of counterterrorism disruption. As such, it is important to reflect on the security implications of KFR for Canada.
First, the threat of KFR operations for Canadian national security will manifest in two ways. Canadians and Canadian interests will continue to be targeted by terrorist groups for the foreseeable future. This includes Canadians who are working and travelling abroad, as well as the employees of Canadian firms.
Second, combating KFR represents a clear collective action problem for the international community. While most states declare they do not pay ransoms, it is believed that payment to secure release is a widespread practice. Further, as discussed above, even Canada is occasionally willing to turn a blind eye to others willing to secure the release of its citizens abroad. As such, the practice of paying ransom is likely to continue, certainly perpetuating an unfortunate cycle for those that are caught up in such operations. While it is easy to say that Canada and other states should live up to their rhetoric, a scenario in which a national leader prevents the actions of others to save the life of a fellow citizen is unrealistic.
Finally, despite the grim points above, there are steps that Canada and the international community can take. For KFR operations to succeed, a group requires a certain level of capacity to successfully conduct KFR, such as hiding and maintaining their captives (even if the conditions are poor). They also need to have networks through which they can negotiate and receive ransoms. As such, terrorist groups and their corresponding KFR actions thrive in the ungoverned and undergoverned spaces of weak states.
Important steps to counter these threats include helping build counterterrorism capacity of fragile states and work to improve their ability to govern themselves. It is also important to work with allied partners and in international organizations to develop tools to identify and disrupt networks that facilitate and finance terrorism activities.
Fortunately, Canada is in a good position to assist with these kinds of policies through its global counterterrorism capacity-building programs and expertise in countering terrorism financing. And while the ethical questions surrounding of KFR will remain, a strong commitment to countering violent extremism worldwide will at least go someway to addressing this problem.