ISIS’ beheading of Sotloff: US may be appalled

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Screengrabs of the two videos showing the beheading of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Agencies

Screengrabs of the two videos showing the beheading of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Agencies

The beheading of a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff (the first was James Foley), by the murderous terrorists of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS and ISIL), is a stark reminder of what is in store for the world.
Even though the Americans did not buckle to the Islamic State threats and stop their air raids in Iraq, hostage taking will continue and expand. The militants will now scout for more high-value “white” hostages elsewhere in the world in order to pile on the pressure on the Americans. India, in particular, should be wary since American or other such targets are easiest to kidnap in this country.
As a soft state, India has always bent over backwards to kowtow to terror. In July, for example, we rescued some Keralite nurses from the clutches of the Islamic State, possibly with some behind-the-scenes ransoming. This has been denied officially, but who knows what went on behind the scenes?
Even now we are in the midst of a low-key hostage crisis involving nearly 40 construction workers held by the Islamic State in Iraq. After the release of the Keralite nurses, the Islamic State is said to be refusing to negotiate for unknown reasons. The issue has disappeared from the front pages of domestic news media, and one reason could be the low exchange value of ordinary construction workers for big money or other swaps. Moreover, Islamic State is currently losing territory, and it may not make sense for it to anger more countries like India, which has a large Muslim population of its own.
The overall hostage-taking business, however, is thriving – whether in Somalia or West Asia or in Africa – because the world has an ambivalent policy towards it. Though most countries officially follow a “no ransom” or even “no negotiations” policy in hostage situations, the reality is most nations do talk to terrorists on humanitarian grounds.
The Americans have accused the Europeans and even the Canadians of regularly using money to bring back their hostages in Africa and elsewhere – with Austria and Germany being named in two recent cases involving the release of hostages by paying ransoms. The Germans paid €5 million to free 32 hostages held in a west African country, and the Canadians did the same to get two of their diplomats freed.
In 2008, according to this Globe and Mail report, some terrorist groups were offering $45,000 for a western hostage in West Africa.
For the terrorists, the logic driving hostage-taking is political and economic. The political ends are served when nations bow to their demands, thus making it easier for them to recruit more terrorists by showing how effective they are; the ransoms are critical to financially bankroll terrorist activities, including the recruitment of mercenaries, not to speak of arms and ammo.
Despite some high-profile exceptions to the norm of giving in to terrorists, in most cases the terrorists end up on the winning side because the world does not have a unified policy on how to deal with ransom demands and hostage-taking.
The Americans, for example, did little to negotiate Sotloff’s release – indicating a grim acceptance that negotiations and ransoms may help overcome a short-term humanitarian issue but effectively prepare the ground for the next such escalation – but the Europeans and the Israelis have taken a different line.
The Israelis, despite being labelled as “brutal” to Palestinians, regularly negotiate with hostage-takers or militant groups in order to get their soldiers and civilians released. In 2011-12, for example, Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinians, including convicted terrorists, in exchange for just one Israeli prisoner-of-war held by Hamas. The reasons are more than just humanitarian. As a country where military service is compulsory, it could damage soldier morale if the government is seen as unable to protect and bring back its own soldiers.
The Russians have been more coldly calculative in hostage situations, and have been willing to sacrifice innocent lives and use unorthodox means – as they demonstrated while dealing with the Moscow theatre hostage crisis of 2002. Russian special troops ended the crisis by using toxic gas to immobilise the terrorists, but in the process they also ended up killing more than 100 civilians who were held hostage. The terrorists were Islamists fighting for Chechen independence.
This is in sharp contrast to the softer approaches of the Europeans, who have clearly been willing to pay huge ransoms to extricate their citizens, as this New York Times report says. It estimates that European governments may have paid “al Qaeda and its direct affiliates…at least $125 million…since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year.”
Even the US is not doing beyond doing some deals with the Taliban – as it did to get the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Guantanamo detainees.
In India, we have never had a clearly-articulated policy – possibly for sensible reasons, since terrorists can always change their tactics if they know what we will do – despite an official “no negotiations with terrorists” policy that is probably honoured more in the breach.
The truth is democracies with a free press find it harder to go against popular sentiment in hostage situations. When the media is busy talking to the relatives of victims and citizens in general, the toughest of governments tends to give in for fear of losing popular support. This is because in case of any deaths or disaster in rescue, the citizens tend to blame the government rather than the terrorists.
Popular pressure was one reason why the Vajpayee government caved in to the demands of terrorists in the Kandahar Indian Airlines plane hijack of 1999. India agreed to release three Islamic militants – including Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which is now busy organising terrorist activities against us – in exchange for letting the plane and passengers leave Afghan territory.
Three things are clear:
One, caving in to hostage demands leads to more not less terrorism.
Two, not negotiating with terrorists is often not an option when every country wants to protect its own citizens even if the terrorists get bolder the next time.
Three, dealing with hostage situations thus needs a unified resolve by all countries, never mind who the hostages are, to adopt the same tough policy. The problem is even countries with a no-ransom policy cave in when high-profile targets (like diplomats, soldiers, businessmen or journalists) are involved.
It is difficult to see how the world is going to come to an agreement on this issue when national sentiment conflicts with rational decisions.
The unsavoury reality is that the US’s refusal to buy the freedom of two beheaded journalists will not make any difference to the hostage-taking business or to the broader viability of terrorism. Reason: the world has been willing to talk to terrorists, and it is not just about paying ransoms. It has sometimes even supported terrorists by segregating them into good terrorists and bad ones. The US created al-Qaeda when it opposed Russia in Afghanistan. The good terrorists turned bad once the Russians left. In trying to deal with two dictators – Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad of Iraq and Syria – the US has created new terrorist organisations, including Islamic State. Pakistan created its own terror outfits to target India, but in the process it has unleashed an internal Taliban on itself.
We are not going to get anywhere by pursuing short-term and disjointed “national” policies on terrorism. Till the world gets its act together, we should expect more, not less, hostage-taking and terror.
Sotloff’s beheading won’t be the last. Terrorism is now good business. But this is not good for everyone in world.