Fred Burton is a former U.S. special agent and vice-president of intelligence at Stratfor
Following the murder of Canadian John Ridsdel this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed Ottawa's position that Canada will not make ransom payments to terrorists.
But having worked numerous hostage cases over my many years as a special agent with the U.S. Department of State, I can tell you the question of what governments can and will do to bring hostages home is not as clear-cut as the statements of leaders such as Mr. Trudeau.
The rationale behind such a line in the sand – that paying ransoms only begets more hostage-taking: Militant groups will be more likely to target victims from countries willing to pay ransoms.
While seemingly sound in principle, the theory does not always play out that way in reality. As we have seen, militant group Abu Sayyaf seized two Canadians (along with two non-Canadians) despite Ottawa's very vocal and longstanding unwillingness to pay ransoms. It is simply unrealistic to expect terrorists to be significantly deterred by the policies of a potential hostage's home government when a kidnapping opportunity arises on the group's home turf.
In part this is because even though governments have been unwilling to pay ransoms, family members and employers – which sometimes take out kidnap and ransom insurance policies on their high-risk travellers – are often willing to pay to secure the safe release of their loved ones or workers.
In this case, however, no one apparently stepped up to meet Abu Sayyaf's ransom demands, and the group followed through on its threat to murder a hostage if it was not paid. In light of the killing, his fellow Canadian hostage is in a very precarious position, perhaps forcing the Canadian government to try a new approach.
Ottawa's unwillingness to pay ransoms does not mean there are no other options to recover the hostages. As John le Carré wrote in A Perfect Spy, "in every operation, there is an above the line and a below the line. Above the line is what you do by the book. Below the line is how you do the job."
Even though the Canadian government is going "by the book" publicly in reiterating its position regarding ransoms, much more is likely happening below the line that could change this situation.
Ultimately, however, the governments of host nations are responsible for safeguarding travellers – in this case, the Philippines. The threat posed by Abu Sayyaf is hardly new, though the group took a 15-year hiatus between murdering kidnapped Western nationals.
The Canadian military, security and intelligence services will need to press their counterparts in Manila for greater tactical co-operation and intelligence exchange, both to safeguard the lives of the remaining hostages and to ensure these situations are not repeated. All options should be on the table, including a variety of hostage rescue scenarios, negotiations and military operations with other capable forces in the region, specifically Australian and U.S. forces.
While many of these scenarios are likely to put the remaining Canadian hostage in great danger, Abu Sayyaf itself has shown that its Western hostages are already in great danger. For the most part, Canada's hands are tied, and it is Manila that will choose the way forward, though hopefully in close co-ordination with Canada and its partners.
And unfortunately, my experience has shown that once the threat has escalated to this point, there are rarely good outcomes – only bad options.