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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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

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