Should The U.S. Pay Ransom For ISIS Hostages? Videotaped murders by Islamic State have sparked outrage around the world. But while some European countries have paid ransom to retrieve victims taken by ISIS, Britain and the U.S. have not.
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Should The U.S. Pay Ransom For ISIS Hostages?

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Should The U.S. Pay Ransom For ISIS Hostages?

Should The U.S. Pay Ransom For ISIS Hostages?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The U.S. government has a long-standing policy of refusing to pay ransom for Americans held hostage by terrorist groups - nor does it negotiate with them. This stance was criticized by the family of James Foley, the journalist killed by ISIS. They felt the Obama administration did not do enough to secure Foley's release. NPR's Brian Naylor takes a closer look now at the no ransom policy.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It was three years ago that Joshua Fattal tasted freedom again. Fattal was one of three Americans who were seized as they hiked in Iraqi Kurdistan near the Uranian border. Fattal was held the 26 months by the Tehran government, charged with spying. His release came as then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to the U.S.

JOSHUA FATTAL: I was released while Ahmadinejad was visiting the U.N., for the U.N. General Assembly. And it was really just a publicity stunt.

NAYLOR: All three hikers were eventually released. Fattal was let go after Iran received more than $400,000 in ransom - bailed the Iranians called it - on his behalf from the Sultan of Oman.

FATTAL: When someone who was held and who was released, in part because of a ransom, I'm forever grateful for that. It seems like it's important to have the U.S. government be supporting U.S. citizens abroad.

NAYLOR: But the U.S. does not pay ransom to win the release of Americans, as White House spokesman Josh Earnest explained at a recent briefing.

JOSH EARNEST: This is a policy that the United States has pursued for a long time. It has been in place for a long time.

NAYLOR: In fact, Americans have been taken hostage since the very earliest days of the Republic. George Terwilliger, a former Deputy Attorney General in the first George Bush administration, says there is good reason for the no ransom policy.

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GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Once you start down that road, it's very difficult to turn back. And I know it's an almost ancient comparison but for a long time we did pay money to the Barbary pirates and they wound up taking an entire crew of a U.S. naval vessel hostage.

NAYLOR: It took a force of Marines to free those hostages. Terwilliger was among those who worked to win the release of a group of Americans abducted in Lebanon in the 1980s, but without paying ransom.

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TERWILLIGER: It made no sense, as both a policy and a practical matter, to pay money to make that happen. All you're doing is condemning other Americans to future captivity when people realized that it could be a source of funding for them.

NAYLOR: While Britain shares the U.S. refusal to pay ransom, other European nations do not. That's led to charges that ransom payments have helped fund al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. In a video released this week by ISIS, a man who said he was captured, British journalist John Cantlie, touched on this distinction.

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JOHN CANTLIE: They negotiated with the Islamic State and got their people home; while the British and Americans were left behind.

NAYLOR: ISIS reportedly demanded a $130 million ransom for American James Foley. Carolin Goerzig, who teaches terrorism research at Virginia Commonwealth University, says ISIS is more interested in publicity that money. She says the U.S. no ransom policy puts the nation in a difficult position.

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CAROLIN GOERZIG: If they won't pay ransom, I mean, then probably ISIS will portray this as the U.S. government's weakness and the British government's weakness. And they would signal this a victory. But at the same time, not paying ransom does not deter these groups from kidnappings either. So it seems to be a lose-lose situation for the U.S. government.

NAYLOR: Joshua Fattal, now a doctoral student in history at N.Y.U., argues American citizens should not be made to suffer because of flawed U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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FATTAL: In the situation where the U.S. creates such a mess and citizens have to pay for it - or part of the small cost of it - I think the U.S. government should bail those citizens out in the same way that it bails out its banks.

NAYLOR: But there's no indication the Obama administration shares that view. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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