A soldier in the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra front in Syria, which is part-funded by kidnap. Photo: Getty.
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Al-Qaeda earns $125m from ransom payments: should European governments stop paying up?

A New York Times article has suggests that European governments act as an "inadvertent underwriter for al-Qaeda". Should governments pay ransoms when their citizens are taken hostage?

If you’re kidnapped by al-Qaeda or its affiliates, your best hope could be having a French passport. That at least is one conclusion you can draw from the New York Times’ brilliant investigation into ransom payments. The newspaper has found that al-Qaeda and its direct affiliates have earned at least $125m in ransom payments, of which $66m was paid in the last year. 

The vast majority of these payments have been made by European governments, who usually try and cover their tracks by funnelling money through a “network of proxies”, sometimes disguising it as development aid. So if you’re a French hostage, you stand a better chance of your ransom being paid than if you’re American or British: both of these countries seem more likely to resist paying up.

The result of these differing policies is clear: “While dozens of Europeans have been released unharmed, few American or British nationals have gotten out alive. A lucky few ran away or were rescued by special forces. The rest were executed or are being held indefinitely.”

In May 2009, four tourists in Mali were kidnapped: a German woman, a Swiss couple and a British man named Edwin Dyer. The Swiss and German nationals were released after their governments paid a ransom, but Dyer was killed on 31 May by his kidnappers, al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb.

The ethics of ransom payments are complex however. European governments have now paid so much money to the terrorist organisation that they are, in the words of the New York Times article, effectively an “inadvertent underwriter of al-Qaeda”. According to the newspaper, France has given $58.1m in ransom payments to al-Qaeda, Qatar and Omar have given $20.4m, Spain $12.4m and Austria $11m. Paying ransoms encourage kidnapping, by making it a profitable business, and funds terrorism. On the other hand, refusing to pay up often means an innocent civilian dies, particularly as rescue missions are often deadly and sometimes impossible. 

What is clearer, however, is that an inconsistent strategy, such as the one currently employed by western governments, is the worst of both worlds. It means that al-Qaeda still have a financial incentive to kidnap tourists, journalists and aid workers, but hostages can't be confident that their governments will hand over money to secure their freedom. For the family of a hostage killed in captivity, the idea that their death is part of a broader strategy to discourage kidnapping is no real consolation, but far worse that they should die because of a poorly-enforced and therefore ineffective policy.

It’s hard to prove if the US and UK really are less likely to pay ransoms (perhaps they cover their tracks much better) but the recent pattern of hostage-taking suggests the New York Times conclusions are correct.

Of the 53 hostages taken by al-Qaeda in the past five years a third were French, and 20 per cent were from Austria, Spain and Switzerland. In contrast, only three are American. This suggests that al-Qaeda is targeting citizens of countries more likely to pay up.

So, should you decide to go hiking in Yemen or sailing off Somalia (which you definitely shouldn’t) having a US or UK passport might make you less likely to be kidnapped than someone with a French or Swiss one. Then again, if you are held hostage, the consequences are likely to be worse. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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