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.

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With the Greek summer at an end, the refugee crisis is just beginning

Refugee camps are battling floods – and even arson. With each passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase.

The Greek summer came to an abrupt end at the start of September. Nowhere was spared the storms or the floods. At the Katsikas refugee camp, near the north-western city of Ioannina, the effects were dramatic. The site, formerly a military airport, flooded. The gravel turned to mud, swamping the floors of tents that were completely unsuitable for this terrain or weather.

Hundreds of people were relocated to hotels in the city. Officials from the municipality and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees scrambled to find families suitable shelter. A former orphanage on the outskirts of the city was supposed to have been renovated to house the refugees, but bureaucracy has held up the work.

Autumn falls heavily in the western region of Epirus. The danger of refugees being caught outside is real.

“We all know that when the morning fog from the lake [of Ioannina] comes in, the tents will rot away,” Filipos Filios, a former mayor of the town and now the co-ordinator between the state and the charities in the region, tells me. “They [Europe] need to relocate 20,000 people from Greece. That would have solved pretty much all of our problems. Instead, they’ve taken 3,000.”

Around Epirus, the facilities available to refugees are in good shape. Empty civil-service buildings have been repurposed to host families or single people separately. Special measures are in place for Yazidi refugees, who are in danger from others in the camps. As at the other centres across Greece, however, the problems here are not organisational.

“We have 500 people living in tents with bathrooms available, grills and cleaners, with a fully stocked food storage space and doctors always present. There’s even a centre for creative activities for the children,” Filios says. “It’s the very existence of the camp, and the need for more like it, that is the difficulty.”

On 19 September, tents at the overcrowded Moria detention centre on the island of Lesbos were set on fire. False rumours had been circulating that large numbers of Afghans were about to be sent to Turkey. Four thousand people were evacuated and a night of anguish followed. Refugees slept on the streets and local people, who oppose the presence of the camp, seized the opportunity to attack refugees and activists.

The Greek far right, led by followers of the Golden Dawn party, is stirring up anti-refugee sentiment. Attacks on journalists on Lesbos and the nearby island of Chios have become more frequent. There is talk of vigilante-style citizen patrols around the camps, staffed by residents worried about their livelihoods.

During an anti-refugee demonstration in Chios on 14 September, Ioannis Stevis, the editor of the Astraparis news website, was attacked.

“No trouble had started when the representative of Golden Dawn attacked me,” he told me. “The invitation [to march] wasn’t from the far right, but the direction of the demo once there was very specific; they had the upper hand. Some who had gone in good faith left when they heard chants like ‘Greece of Christian Greeks’.”

The march in Chios took a nasty turn when extreme elements headed to the Vial refugee camp. There, they were confronted by riot police. The refugees also fought back, throwing stones at the marchers from inside the camp.

“There was no plan to attack the camp and not everybody followed that march,” Stevis says. “We have 3,700 people here in inadequate conditions, and there is some small-scale delinquency – we can’t hide that. But there are people who try to magnify that. There definitely is a desire for citizen patrols, and not just from the far right. Especially in the village near the camp, people want to organise without being [associated with the] far right.”

With every passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase. It has become clear that the relocation programme, designed to distribute refugees proportionally across European Union member countries according to population, is not working. These refugees are now stuck in Greece. Mere dozens leave every month for other EU countries, and fewer still depart for Turkey.

The rumours that they will be sent back to the places they have fled are no longer just rumours. On 5 October the EU and Afghanistan announced an agreement to repatriate Afghans who have been turned down for asylum. EU data shows that in 2015, 213,000 Afghans arrived in Europe, and 176,900 of those claimed asylum. More than 50 per cent of these applications were rejected. Later, a leaked memo from the negotiations showed that Afghanistan was threatened with a reduction in aid if the country did not commit to accepting at least 80,000 returning refugees.

What does all of this mean in the camps? It is the most vulnerable refugees to whom we must look to understand.

At the Moria detention centre on Lesbos, four teenagers have been arrested for allegedly gang-raping an unaccompanied 16-year-old Pakistani boy. The actions of these children, who are perhaps the ones receiving the most direct support, expose how stretched and inadequate the system is.

Even for unaccompanied children, the focus of much international attention, conditions are terrible. Officials have been saying for months that the Moria camp, which has no private rooms or locks on its doors, is unsuitable for children. An activist there, who didn’t want to be named in order to protect their work, told me that they had witnessed a teenage girl being confined in the same space as 80 boys for weeks on end.

Back at the Katsikas camp, autumn is settling in. Rain, humidity and cold have replaced the warm summer days. There is word that this camp and the others like it might soon be evacuated permanently, though there is no hint where the people might go. If they are deported to the war-torn countries they have escaped, as the EU wishes, there is little to prevent them making the journey back here. They are desperate, and many are barely surviving. Yet the message from the EU governments is clear: we’re hoping they won’t make it. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge