06/10/14 at 8:02 pm
This week’s issue of the BBC Magazine features a report on kidnappings in the Sahel written by four students from the Stabile Class of 2013. The report, “Is it Right to Pay Ransoms?,” reconstructs the abduction of four Europeans – an elderly retired teacher from Germany, a Swiss couple and a British citizen named Edward Dyer. All four were driving down a desert highway after taking part in an annual concert of Tuareg music on the Mali-Niger border in 2009.
The German and Swiss hostages were eventually released after several months when their governments paid ransom. But Dyer was shot and then beheaded by Islamist militants belonging to the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM. The UK government bans paying ransom to abductors.
The students – Derek Kravitz, Colm O’Molloy, Jan Hendrik Hinzel and Lindsey Bever – began reporting this project while they were enrolled in the Stabile program. They spoke with the released hostages, negotiators, security consultants and government officials. They also found evidence of the payoffs, including minutes of a special government meeting in Switzerland. The minutes showed that Swiss government ministers had agreed to make a payment to reimburse the costs of freeing the two Swiss citizens.
The students wrote:
Since 2003, at least 68 Westerners have been kidnapped in the vast Sahara. More than half of these kidnappings occurred between 2008 and 2012, according to security consultants, foreign governments and human rights groups that monitor attacks on aid workers, tourists and journalists.
The data they have collected suggests ransoms totlling at least $30m (£18.3m) have been paid since 2008 in connection with these kidnappings and that the going rate for a single Western hostage in the region is now about $2m (£1.2m).
Most of these hostages were citizens of countries that are believed to have paid ransoms. Over the past six years, at least a dozen French nationals have been kidnapped in North Africa and the Sahel region, the highest number of any nationality. The majority have been freed, although two were killed, another died in captivity and one is still being held.
In that same period, at least five Spanish, four Italian, two Canadian, two Austrian, two Swiss and two German hostages have been taken. Of this group of 17, one died of natural causes in captivity and the rest were released unharmed. Nearly all of them were aid workers or tourists.
Many European governments say they don’t pay ransoms, but they still find a way to make a payment without handing cash directly to kidnappers, says Vicki Huddleston, a former US ambassador to Mali.