The deepening dilemma over hostages

Published by The Independent (September 15th, 2014)

The fact that it was almost expected does not make it any less hideous. David Haines, a good man who went to Syria to help deliver aid to people whose lives had been wrecked by war, was dressed in the all-too-familiar orange garb of Guantanamo and murdered in the most savage style possible.

The pleas of his family were ignored by Islamic State killers who take such delight in using social media to spread fear. There is a chilling logic to their extreme terror: I have seen in Iraq the intensity of the panic they create, with towns and refugee camps emptied in an instant as their forces advance. The family of their Isis victim begged the kidnappers to talk to them, but in vain. Now the teenage daughter who called Haines her hero is left distraught, along with his new young family in Croatia.

Mr Haines is the third Western hostage whose life has been ended in public execution by these zealots. It is part of their drive to turn the clock back centuries in the Middle East and fulfill their bigoted dreams – although we must never forget that however gruesome these beheadings, they are just a handful among thousands of slaughtered Iraqis and Syrians. Nor should we ignore perhaps 7,500 Yazidi held hostage, the women facing the prospect of forced marriage and rape, while their children are stolen for forced conversion.

David Cameron is right to call this murder of a humanitarian worker an “act of pure evil”. Yet there is a danger when emotions run so high that the West responds in a manner that inflames the situation. Already some call for an alliance with the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, the bloodstained despot who fanned Islamist groups in his country to crush more moderate forces. And while 40 nations join a US-led mission to smash Isis, little is done to combat the self-declared and growing caliphate being created by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria – arguably of more direct threat to our interests.

This killing should also raise questions over how we respond to these kidnappings, all the more so given that another Briton is now threatened by these jihadist thugs – a hostage named yesterday as Alan Henning. While accepting that Western governments are trapped in a nightmarish situation beyond its control, it does not mean we should not question their approach.

For a start, are governments such as Britain’s right to advocate media blackouts? Obviously the wishes of families are paramount. Snared suddenly in a horror story with a loved one’s life in jeopardy, they tend to take official advice – but as James Foley’s family showed last week with sharp castigation of officials, they can later regret this. His mother said they were told to avoid the media and trust the government to get him free. “I really feel that our country let Jim down,” she concluded.

I talked recently to Bunyamin Aygun, a Turkish photojournalist held for 40 days in Syria and the only foreign hostage to speak openly about being a prisoner under these militants. He endured threat of execution, constant movement between cramped cells, ceaseless interrogations over whether he was a spy. But these ended after 17 days when his captors read online that he really was a journalist. “They follow reports on the internet very closely,” he said.

As a result, Aygun believes that media blackouts can backfire – while pointing out they also relieve pressure on officials to save hostages. Mr Haines was held for more than a year in Syria before his captors paraded him on video. And attempts to free Mr Foley seem to have been led by his employers, before a special forces rescue mission missed their target after apparently being delayed by political indecision. Contrast this with Aygun – freed after six weeks when Turkish intelligence backed a mission to free him led by local militia.

Then there is the thorny issue of ransoms. Britain and America refuse to pay, largely rightly in my view. The New York Times recently revealed that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have raised $125m from kidnappings since 2008, an astonishing $66m handed over last year alone. This was one reason behind their rapid rise in Mali, leading to the partial-collapse of the country. It is claimed that the Western country with most citizens held hostage is France, which must be related to its readiness to pay ransoms.

Yet Isis is possibly the world’s richest terror organisation, able to pay fighters twice the going monthly rate in its war-torn region. One recent estimate puts its wealth at $2bn. The group’s rise was fuelled by donations from Gulf supporters, but now makes millions from oil sales, bank raids and taxes on people under its control, while armed with modern US weaponry seized from the Iraq army. One Iraqi soldier told me he was captured with more than 20 comrades, their families forced to pay $50,000 each for their freedom. This single small incident among dozens raised more than $1m.

Given this, and the near-certainty that these jihadists will carry out threats to continue to kill hostages, is it right to refuse to save citizens’ lives in cases where the sums of money involved will not make a huge difference? The US takes a similar hardline stance – yet recently traded five Taliban commanders for a kidnapped army sergeant. I dread to think how my family would feel if I was paraded on a video dressed in orange, only to see reporters from other European countries walk free. Morality can be a two-edged sword.

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