July 1, 2020

Terrorism and Kidnapping for Ransom: Why No-Concession Policies are Unwarranted

By Maarten Visser


Terrorism networks have proven to be original and determined, going to great lengths to attain the funds they so desperately need. After all, finances are the lifeblood of terrorist organisations; without financial support they are unable to perform their training exercises, propaganda and recruitment activities, and, above all, to carry out their next attack. One increasingly prevalent method (Forest, 2012; Miller, 2017,) is ‘Kidnapping for Ransom’ (KFR). These hostage-takings have created a major quandary for authorities, as the consequences of acceding to the terrorists’ demands remain ambiguous (Jenkins, 1974; Brandt et al., 2016; Mellon et al., 2017; Mertes et al., 2020).

Policymakers often argue that all concessions are unwarranted, followed by the slogan ‘we do not negotiate with terrorists’. This viewpoint is based on the assumption that ransom payments finance terrorist activity (Callimachi, 2014), produce an incentive for more kidnappings, and, above all, provoke more terror attacks (Bapat, 2006; Brandt et al., 2016).  The aspiration to demolish the financial infrastructure of terrorism seems to be so fundamental that it excuses grim sacrifices – ultimately the gruesome video-taped beheading of the hostage. This notion is also reflected in the policies of the international community: The Group of 7 (G7) and the members of the United Nations (UN) have formally adopted a ‘no-concessions’ strategy (UN General Assembly Resolution 2133, 2014). However, many countries do not, de facto, adhere to these policies, and contribute to the alleged millions of dollars paid to terrorist organisations each year (Callimachi, 2014; Mertes et al., 2020). Their reasoning is that a rigid non-negotiation approach does not stop terrorists from taking hostages (Callimachi, 2014; Mertes et al., 2020) and could delay conflict resolutions (Simon, 2019, p. 58). The deontological side of the argument is that the permanent rejection of the terrorists’ demands is, to some extent, a violation of the victim’s human rights (Galani, 2017), since abducted nationals from countries that refuse to negotiate end up facing grimmer prospects (Brandt et al, 2016; Mellon et al., 2017; Mertes et al., 2020). This makes one wonder whether the slogan ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists’ expresses a highly sophisticated gambit, or whether it is merely a euphemism for a poor and ultimately dangerous political attitude.

This essay will demonstrate that a no-concessions policy is an undesirable strategy, not only because it makes states unnecessarily inflexible, as negotiating can sometimes enhance national security, but also because the data do not show such a policy to discourage terrorists from kidnapping. Section two will put KFR in a historical perspective and will argue that the narrative has changed over time, mainly because of the proliferation of jihadist groups. Section two will critically evaluate the no-concessions policy, distinguishing three ways the debate can be understood: as an ethical dilemma, a policy issue and a political problem. Section three will provide alternative policies and recommendations to improve the current strategy for dealing with KFR.

Terrorism and KFR in Perspective

Although KFR has gained momentum in academic discourse recently, it is not a new phenomenon. Two well-known ancient cases are the kidnapping of Julius Caesar in 75 BCE by Cilician pirates, who demanded twenty talents of silver in return for his release, and the abduction of King Richard the Lionheart in 1192, who was ransomed two years later for a sum of 150.000 marks. In recent decades, KFR has been a significant source of funding for illicit organisations around the world, ranging from Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, to militant and revolutionary groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and Palestinian liberation movements.

In order to evaluate opposing policies concerning the negotiation with ‘terrorists’, it is important to distinguish terrorist organisations from non-terrorist groups involved in KFR. Although there is often a thin line between the two, it does make a difference to whether countries with no-concession policies would consider negotiating. The US, for instance, adheres to a strict no-concessions policy, but negotiates with rogue states and pays ransom to criminals, especially in domestic cases. The US criminal code §2339B proscribes the provision of material support to designated foreign terrorist organisations. For a foreign group to become a designated terrorist organisation, it must have the ability and intent to engage in terrorist activity and pose a threat to US national security (Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 219). This inevitably raises the question of how to define terrorism, a debatable concept of which an in-depth assessment is beyond the scope of this essay. However, it can be argued that terrorism is ‘the premeditated use of violence against non-combatants to achieve political or social objectives through intimidation’ (Enders and Sandler, 2012; Brandt et al., 2016).

This is to say that terrorism is not always driven by monetary gain; other typical demands include the release of political prisoners, publicity or safe conduct (Wilson, 2003; Mertes et al., 2020). The deliberate targeting of high-profile individuals and airplanes from the 1960s onwards, together with the Lebanon hostage crisis in the 1980s, were primarily used as a political weapon. Brian Jenkins (1974) and James Forest (2012) point out that the goal of most of these incidents was exposure: drawing attention to ‘political prisoners’ in order to bring about their release. Aside from concrete demands, terrorists constantly seek symbolic recognition: accepting terrorists as negotiation partners would be tantamount to legitimising their cause, critics of the concession policy argue (Toros, 2008). It can also be argued that the terrorist’s aspiration to attain status is linked to their desire for publicity. After all, terrorists essentially aim to instigate fear, and a dramatic hostage situation offers a podium to broadcast their message and heighten their bargaining power. As Jenkins eloquently wrote in his 1974 paper ‘International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare’: “Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not at the actual victims. Terrorism is theater” (Jenkins, 1974, p. 4).

The emergence of interconnected Jihadi movements at the start of the 21st century undeniably transformed the KFR playing field (see also Simon, 2019, p. 27). Empirical data show that most terrorist kidnappings in the 21st century were conducted by Jihadi and insurgent groups in the Middle East – predominantly Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria – as well as in Somalia and the Sahel (Loertscher and Milton, 2015; Jenkins, 2018; Miller, 2017). Joel Simon (2019), executive director of the committee for the protection of journalists, argues that al-Qaeda’s kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl marked an important shift: al-Qaeda had hitherto tolerated international journalists, as the interviews of CNN and ABC with Osama Bin Laden attest. The video-taped beheading was spread on the internet, a precedent which other Jihadi terrorist organisations have since followed (Simon, 2019, p. 27). Furthermore, terrorists soon realised that KFR could be “the precious treasure” to fund their activities (Callimachi, 2014). Consequently, several prominent figures of Jihadi movements have urged supporters worldwide to kidnap Westerners (Callimachi, 2014; Shortland and Keatinge, 2017, p. 4). Thomas Hegghammer (2004), a senior research associate at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), analysed 63 kidnapping cases in Iraq in 2004 and noted that different groups easily inspire one another. Kidnapping, Hegghammer emphasised, is an extremely successful technique to gain money because it requires relatively few resources. It is also highly effective as a propaganda tool, since it provides a unique platform on which specific demands can be broadcast. Moreover, victims last over time, which makes them ‘recyclable’ (Hegghammer, 2004, p. 10). Besides the monetary gain, terrorists are aware that each kidnapping creates a terrible dilemma for national authorities. This dilemma has been approached from different angles and ethical codes.

Ethical, Policy and Political Frameworks

Normative ethics – What is the right thing to do?

At the heart of this is a normative ethical question: what is the right thing to do? The two main theories in normative ethics are deontology and teleology[1]. In a nutshell, the theory of deontology judges the morality of an action by previously established rules, such that a moral agent must act out of a overpowering ethical duty (deon, in Greek). In such a system, an action is only permissible if it accords with a moral injunction. If the action is good, one is morally obligated to perform it, and if it is bad, one is morally obligated to avoid it.

Teleologists, by contrast, derive the morality of an action from its end (telos in Greek). The teleological theory of utilitarianism, for instance, is based on the idea that the moral status of an action is a function of the quantity of pleasure or pain it produces. The utilitarian maxim is to act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, happiness being the predominance of pleasure over pain. In utilitarianism, there are no immutable laws or duties.

In 2017, Jeffery Howard (2018), an associate professor at University College London, published “Kidnapped: The Ethics of Paying Ransom”, a comprehensive study in which he applied both ethical codes. Howard concluded that deciding on a policy is complicated. This should come as no surprise, however, because philosophical dilemmas are baffling for a reason.  Moreover, each case of abduction is different, with many variables at play.

The utilitarian standpoint is clear. Paying ransom finances terrorism, and will, therefore, increase the likelihood of future attacks and kidnappings. It is morally permissible to sacrifice the life of one innocent person in order to save thousands of others, since the suffering of thousands of people would be a thousand times greater. Simply a matter of numbers, the utilitarian says.

The deontological stance is less obvious. It is tempting to assume, like Howard and many others do, that the deontologist would, to save an innocent life, simply pay the ransom. But recall that deontology is about duties, not about consequences. The Kantian ethic, developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), exemplifies this commitment to duty. Kant would most probably consider it impermissible to fund unjust organisations. Moral law, he would argue, admits of no alterations; not according to the variations of the situation, not by the good intentions of the agent, not even in the hope of realising the greater good.

The death of the hostage is an unfortunate consequence of the terrorists’ behaviour. Paying the ransom to an illicit organisation is, however, still wrong. This is shown by Kant’s attitude to lying, exemplified in the following scenario. Suppose that your friend is hiding in your house and a murderer is looking for her, who knocks on your door and asks you about your friend’s whereabouts. According to Kant, it would be immoral to lie, even if this results in your friend’s death (Warburton, 2012, p. 117; Sandel, 2010, p. 132). Similarly, it is wrong to support such an organisation, even if refusing to do so will result in the hostage dying.

In the KFR discussion, there is a less extreme concept of ethical permissibility. According John Stuart Mill’s conception of utilitarianism[2], which claims that it would be wrong to ‘aggregate’ a qualitatively lower harm (more people being kidnapped, but ransomed) in order to outweigh a quantitatively lower, but qualitatively higher harm (more people being killed) (Howard, 2018, 678). Others, let us call them deontologists lite, use Kant’s emphasis on the inviolability of human dignity. The human dignity of the hostage must not be compromised in order to serve the pleasure of the collective. For that reason alone, deontologists lite argue, authorities are morally bound to ransom the hostage.

But does this really disregard the utilitarian notion of counting the numbers? This debate has various assumptions on both sides, but it can be argued that the consequentialist ‘incentive objection’ stands strong, provided that refusing to pay actually discourages terrorists from further kidnappings. It is worth mentioning, however, that this assumption is widely disputed; the evidence that no-concession policies deter future kidnappings is extremely weak.

Policy assessment – What do the data tell us?

By far the most successful concessionaire is Spain. This country has managed to safely return all their citizens kidnapped by Islamic terror groups and pirates. A Spanish journalist said about his country’s approach: “Spanish society is not prepared to accept that our citizens will die for a principle. The government will pay. The political cost of letting someone die would be enormous. The government would be perceived as not having a heart. I can’t imagine living in a society like that, a society that is so distant and cold” (Simon, 2019, p. 53). This makes one wonder if the Spanish policy results in their nationals being targeted more often than the citizens of countries with strict no-concession policies. The answer to this question is no.

For a no-concession policy to be effective, it should reduce the likelihood that a national from that country will be kidnapped. There is abundant empirical research evaluating this, and this research exposes the ineffectiveness of no-concessions policies. In the 1970s, for instance, Jenkins conducted a study in response to an explosion of kidnappings in Latin America. Western diplomats were frequently targeted by terrorist organisations, such as FARC in Colombia and the Montoneros in Argentina. Jenkins concluded that there were no indicators that a no-concession policy had a deterrent effect (Jenkins et al., 1977, p. 31). Instead, they discovered, the best deterrent was the resolution of the actual conflict (Jenkins et al., 1977, p. 32).

Subsequent research has confirmed these findings. Lapan and Sandler (1988) based their findings on economic calculations ‘in a simple game-theory framework’, in order to demonstrate that refusing to negotiate is ineffective. They note, as mentioned before, that terrorists never solely pursue funding or other concessions (Lapan and Sandler, 1988, p. 18). More recent data-led research reached similar conclusions. Daniel Milton and Seth Loertscher (2015) conducted research for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, in which they concluded that nationality does not play a significant role. According to this study, terrorists tend to kidnap Westerners, but do not check passports. Milton and Loertscher (2015, p. VII) even say that the kidnappings they investigated were predominantly opportunistic in nature; the victims are often ‘individuals who are in the wrong place at the wrong time’. News coverage, numerous anecdotes from victims, narratives from eyewitnesses, and other data support this view.

Consider the case of an Argentinian national living in Nigeria, Santiago Lopez Mendez. In June 2015, an unidentified group seized Mendez without knowing where he was from. The local police believed he was kidnapped “because he (was) white”, something Mendez confirmed after his release. Mendez recalled that after he told his assailants he was from Argentina in South America, they believed to have won the jackpot, having abducted an ‘American’. Only after shouting “Messi Messi Messi”, their excitement and volatile behaviour towards him shifted. Mendez was released not long after (Niell, 2015; Milton and Sandler, 2015, p. 21-22).

A study that contradicts these notions is that of Patrick T. Brandt, Justin George, and Todd Sandler (2016), three researchers affiliated with the University of Texas. They used a complex quantitatively analytical model, in which they compare US and UK nationals, the European Union without the UK, and a group of concessionaires predominantly consisting of European countries. One of their key findings is that even though kidnappings were on the rise for US and UK nationals, there would have been even more if both countries had applied a different policy (Brandt et al., 2016, p. 51). This study has attracted severe criticism, not aimed at their analytical techniques, but towards the variables they used (Jenkins, 2017; Simon, 2019; Mertes et al., 2020). They claim to use a different and more comprehensive dataset regarding information about negotiations and ransom payments – ITERATE (Mickolus et al., 2014). However, Simon (2019) is right to argue that the ITERATE dataset only uses media as a source of data. The media are not always reliable, as they regularly contradict each other, and information about matters as delicate as negotiations and ransom payments is often kept secret. Furthermore, the research does not incorporate a variable for allocation and presence. To illustrate this, one of the locations the study focusses on is North Africa, in which the Algerian-run ‘al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM) is responsible for many of the kidnappings. Brandt et al. fail to account for the fact that there are more Europeans in the area, and that they are easier targets than US and UK citizens (Jenkins, 2017, p. 20; Simon, 2019, p. 54).

Research conducted by Christopher Mellon, Peter Bergen, and David Sterman (2017), scrutinised 1,185 kidnapping for ransom cases between 2001 and 2016, in which Westerners were held by terrorists, militant groups and pirates. They found that twenty percent of all Westerners taken hostage were Americans. Furthermore, Americans are highly likely to get killed once abducted: approximately half of all murdered hostages were US citizens (Mellon et al., 2017, p. 2-3). Moreover, there is no evidence to support the claim that nationals from no-concession countries are kidnapped less often because of those countries’ refusal to negotiate (Mellon et al., 2017, p. 2). In light of this, it is important to mention that the data are clear on two other points (Brandt et al. also came to these conclusions): that Westerners will always be targets of KFR, regardless of the applied policies; and that no-concession policies put people at far greater risk once kidnapped (Jenkins et al., 1977; Lapan and Sandler, 1988; Milton and Loertscher, 2015; Brandt et al., 2016; Jenkins, 2017; Mellon et al., 2017; Mertes et al., 2019). Mellon et al., (2017, p. 3) found that eighty-one percent of hostages from the European Union came back safe and sound, whereas UK and US citizens were freed only in thirty-three and twenty-five per cent of the cases, respectively.

Another argument against the no-concession policy is that the payment of ransom could enhance national security. Lapan and Sandler’s (1988) study shows that a no-concessions policy has no deterrent effect if there are benefits like publicity involved. Ransoming a hostage would deprive the terrorist of a victim who could play the lead role in one of their execution videos. In this way, paying ransom could enhance national security (Simon, 2019, p. 156). It must be said that this claim is difficult to verify with the available data. Nonetheless, the increased ability of terrorists to disseminate their propaganda through the internet is not to be underestimated. ISIS is a striking example hereof. Their highly sophisticated material of hostages beheaded or burned in cages enlarged their visibility, and arguably even increased their recruitment. Furthermore, the negotiation of ransom payments is an opportunity for authorities to trace and eliminate the hostage-takers (Mellon, 2017, p. 2). Gary Noesner, an FBI hostage negotiator who was involved in the Daniel Pearl case, writes that ‘we were never able to sustain a meaningful dialogue with his captors, but the limited contacts we did have assisted FBI investigators in identifying those responsible through their use of an Internet café in Pakistan’ (Keating, 2015).

Overall, it can be argued that the statistics do not favour no-concession policies. Yet, there is another perspective in which KFR can be perceived which has little to do with moral principles or strategic polices: It is the political realm. Because the decision to whether or not to concede with terrorist demands is not only a matter of life and death for the hostage but can also have crucial consequences for the people in charge.

Politics – Are no-concession countries consistent?

On 28 September 1977, Japan Airlines Flight 472 was hijacked by a notorious terror group, known as the Japanese Red Army (JRA). After the plane had landed in Bangladesh, the terrorists announced their demands: $6 million and the release of nine imprisoned JRA members (Thomas, 2008, p. 104). The Japanese authorities accepted this, stating that “human life is more important than the world” (Thomas, 2008, p. 104). This is one of the rare success stories in which all 155 hostages were saved. However, did the Japanese really believe that a human life is paramount, or was it just a matter of numbers, as risking 155 lives can cause severe political consequences?

It goes without saying that the decision to pay ransom is not only based on strategic and ethical deliberations, but also on political sentiments. In order to discover the political motives, we should return to their origin. The US policy of not negotiating dates back to March 1973, when President Nixon proclaimed that the US government will never give in to blackmail demands (Simon, 2019, p. 87-88). This was a direct reaction to a hostage incident in the Saudi embassy of Khartoum, Sudan. The Palestinian terror group Black September had seized ten hostages, and the two Americans were immediately shot dead after Nixon’s message. Brian Jenkins (1982; 2017) argues that Nixon’s no-negotiation policy had been impulsive and, perhaps more importantly, highly inconsistent: in November 1972, only three months before the hostage incident in Khartoum, Nixon had authorised the negotiations with hijackers of Southern Airways Flight 49, which ultimately led to a ransom payment of circa $2 million. Additionally, the FBI regularly supported American citizens with ransom payments, including to terrorists (Simon, 2019, p. 90).

Subsequent US presidents would follow Nixon’s inconsistent hard-line strategy towards kidnappings. After Hezbollah hijacked Trans World Airlines Flight 847, the US President, who was then Ronald Reagan, proclaimed that ‘the US would never negotiate with terrorists, nor would they pressure other governments to do so’ (Simon, 2019, p. 91). The reality turned out to be different. In fact, the US government pushed Israel to release 766 Lebanese – predominantly Shias – who had been detained in Israeli prisons (LA times, 1985).

Another indication that the statement ‘We do not negotiate with terrorists’ has been a political catchphrase, rather than a manifestation of policy, is the National Security Presidential

Directive no. 12 (NSPD-12) initiated in 2001:[3] “United States Citizens Taken Hostage Abroad”. This was the first attempt to explicitly design a policy. As the Bush Administration was reluctant to pass an unconditional ban on negotiations with terrorists, they instead accentuated language like rejecting terrorists of ‘the benefits of concessions’. Remarkably, ransom payment was on the table, provided that it would have been followed by a rescue attempt (Simon, 2019, 92). Despite the official validation of the document in February 2002, the changed security environment – the 9/11 attacks had just occurred, followed by the beheading of Daniel Pearl – and opposition from various members in the Bush Administration resulted in the 2001 Patriot Act starting to get the overhand. That the FBI were tricked for $300.000 by terrorists, only a month later, unquestionably had its share in the dismissal of the NSPD-12. On 27 May 2001, two American citizens, Martin and Gracia Burnham, were abducted in the Philippines by Abu Sayyaf, an affiliate organisation of al-Qaeda predominantly operating in East Asia. The FBI paid the ransom, intending to lure the assailants into a trap when releasing the hostages. However, Abu Sayyaf did not do so. Instead they had secretly started separate negotiations with the Philippine government. It should come as no surprise that the Bush Administration never used this ransom-and-lure technique again (Simon. 2019, p. 93-94).

The political component is also visible among concessionaires. There are many countries that pay ransom to free their nationals, but they differ in style. As mentioned before, Spain practically always negotiates and pays. The same can be said about the Germans and the Italians, and South Korea and Japan pay occasionally. Some Gulf States pay, but mostly on behalf of others. How much they are willing to pay and in what manner, however, varies from country to country. Invariably it happens quietly: the media cover the cases, but with little noise. France is a major exception. Simon (2019, p. 29-40) goes to great lengths to explain that France’s political culture plays a key factor. When French nationals are kidnapped, the public often mobilises to demand their release. More than any other nation, the underlying principle in their political ethos is that the state must protect its citizens. Simon argues that the abduction of a French national is ‘une affaire d’etat’, an attack on France as a whole. Moreover, France is also unique in putting the President directly in charge of the negotiation process. In other words, there is a lot at stake politically. This is why French Presidents tend to make big victory shows to welcome returning victims.[4] This is not to say, however, that the French government is always willing to pay: it negotiates, but occasionally the price is simply too high (Simon, 2019 p. 33).

These variations among concessionaires create obstacles. Not only can abundant media coverage, public protest and the direct involvement of authorities enhance terrorist propaganda and hinder negotiations, but they also increase ransom demands.


The problem is not that countries negotiate and pay, but that they pay too much. This raises the question: would it not be better if no-one pays? After all, this is the intended policy of the G7 and the UN Assembly. The problem with this idea is that the kidnapping market is far more complex than presumed. Terrorists do not only take hostages for monetary gain. It is like trying to eliminate the crime of armed robbery by not allowing victims to give the robbers their money.

It is important to keep in mind that governments are simply one of the actors. There is the family of the victim, the victim’s employer and the Kidnapping & Ransom (K&R) insurance industry. The latter could play a key role in enhancing the negotiation process. A major benefit of this industry is that they have little political bias. Their business model is to get hostages home with as few concessions as possible. In addition to this, governments cannot pretend to be poor or deny that they have the power to release prisoners. The data shows that 97 percent of all kidnappings directed by private negotiation experts are successfully resolved through ransom payments. There are just a few cases in which people escape, get rescued or killed (Simon, 2019, p. 67). Since the US banned the provision of material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organisations, the influence of the K&R industry waned.

Simon (2019, p. 159) proposed the idea of privatising hostage negotiations, not just for criminal cases but also when dealing with terrorists. This idea has some validity. By keeping their involvement secret, governments would be able to monitor and gather intelligence, while the terrorists negotiate directly with a professional insurance company. According to Simon, this will control the terrorists’ demands. Although it would not eliminate KFR, it could certainly make the crime less attractive.

The most recent study – published in 2020 the Journal of Peace Psychology – on this matter is entitled “We do not negotiate with terrorists! But what if we did?”. It confirms the significance of doing concessions to terrorists in KFR situations (Mertes et al., 2020). Psychologists Marc Mertes, Jens Mazei, and Joachim Hüffmeier (2020, p. 8) analysed the ITERATE data and concluded: ‘our research shows that authority concessions to terrorist-hostage takers have important positive short-term effects’. Consequently, they see conceding to some, but not all of the terrorists’ demands as the most productive strategy, in which peaceful agreements can be achieved without squandering resources (Mertes et al., 2020, p.8).

Finally, media attention for active KFR cases is another important issue. This is a complicated matter, as the media play a different role from country to country. In Spain, there is a tacit rule that one must minimise the reporting, but in France, where the unions are more prevalent, and in the US, where the media tend to activism, this level of consensus might be hard to reach (Simon, 2019, p. 162). Jenkins (1982, p. 14) argued that ‘the less said in public the better’, but the rapid globalisation and developments on the internet and in social media make this challenging. However, a certain balance seems to be the key. Complete ‘radio silence’ is not desirable, because it could give the terrorists control over the communication (Simon, 2019, p. 162). On the other hand, as mentioned above, sensationalistic media coverages and public rallies can obstruct negotiations and increase ransom demands. Moreover, the media should be vigilant about the content they communicate to the world. Simon (2019, p. 162) recalls cases in which the media’s exaggeration of ransom payments caused confusion and frustration on the part of the hostage-takers which, in turn, endangered other hostages.


American chess grandmaster and legend Bobby Fisher is known for his aggressive variation of the Kings Gambit, in which the player with white sacrifices a pawn in order to gain dominance and weaken the opponent’s king side. The no-concession policy is certainly aggressive, but does not come anywhere close to this standard of sophistication. As every KFR case has its unique subtleties, a policy in which countries exclude themselves from the start, and thereby lose all flexibility, appears to be a poor one. The sacrifice of innocent lives is too high a cost and, more importantly, based on the false assumption that the no-concession policy works. Furthermore, a country’s refusal to negotiate with terrorists is ethically unjustifiable if it unnecessarily endangers its citizens.

This essay has shown that the question should not be whether or not to negotiate – the answer is yes – but how to go about doing it. This is not to say that countries should always pay and automatically accept all terrorists’ demands, but that, even if they do not intend to pay, they should not announce it. For terrorists, there is always a value in kidnapping people; there is no policy that would eliminate that value. And yes, ransom payments fund terrorists, but so does the international arms trade and the embezzlement of donations to charity and aid organisations. Either way, it is time for a policy that can provide maximal flexibility at the negotiation table, whilst also protecting hostages. A policy that is based on empirical evidence and thorough policymaking processes, rather than on a political slogan.


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Wilson, M. (2003). The psychology of hostage taking. In A. Silke (Ed.), Terrorists, victims and society: Psychological perspectives on terrorism and its consequences (pp. 55–76). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9780470713600.ch3


[1] Utilitarianism is a part of consequentialism; the latter term is often used in normative ethic debates but encompasses more (egoism for instance). In this essay both terms will be used interchangeably.

[2] John Stuart Mill claims that there are gradations in pain and pleasure. In contrast with other utilitarianists, such as Jeremy Bentham, Mill makes a qualification before counting the numbers.

[3] The directives that are used to promulgate Presidential decisions on national security matters are designated National Security Presidential Directives (NSPDs). See https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/nspd/index.html

[4] This started with President François Mitterrand during the Lebanese hostage crisis and was continued by his successors. The return of Florence Aubenas and Ingrid Betancourt are striking examples hereof. More recently, Patrick Picque and Leaurent Lassimouillas were personally welcomed by President Macron at the airport after being held hostage in Benin.

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