It should come as no surprise to anyone that Europe is soft on terror. One only has to look at the reactions of European governments to the Israeli campaign in Gaza to get some idea of where they stand. The blatant anti-Semitism on display in the streets plays a large part, no doubt. But the actual idea of confronting terrorism is also unappealing to them.
Last week, The New York Times released an in-depth report that should lay to rest any misconceptions of their being tough when dealing with terrorists. The Times investigation uncovered that despite pronouncements to the contrary, European governments have been making ransom payments directly to terrorist groups — even to al-Qaida itself.
This is not just something that happens once in a while, either. The report cites Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as writing that “kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.” According to the Times, the revenue generated by these kidnappings is said to account for more than half of al-Qaida’s operating revenue.
Governments in Europe, such as France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, have been using government-owned companies to make payments directly to terrorist kidnappers. As the Times points out, “Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of al-Qaida.” And while each individual case must be considered separately, the fact that some countries have been paying ransom as a matter of policy is having disastrous consequences.
In 1286, Harav Meir ben Baruch, the Maharam MiRottenberg, was arrested and held captive by King Rudolf I because he tried to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael. Rudolf demanded an obscene sum of money from the Jews as a ransom; it is said he originally asked for 30,000 marks. The Maharam, in his position as leader of Torah Jewry, was irreplaceable, and his student, Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, the Rosh, raised over 20,000 marks to buy his freedom.
But the Maharam refused to allow them to pay the ransom. Citing the Mishnah in Gittin (4:6) which teaches that one may not overpay to ransom captives, he remained in captivity for seven years, until his petirah in 1293. It was not until 14 years later that his body was turned over for burial, the ransom for that paid for by a wealthy man named Alexander Wimpen, who gave away most of his fortune in order to bring the tzaddik’s body to kevurah.
Harav Shlomo Luria (the Maharshal), who lived some 250 years later, wrote about this episode in his sefer Yam shel Shlomo. He questioned why the Maharam would not let them pay for his freedom. As the Gadol Hador he had no equal, so the Mishnah would not apply — as any payment would not be too much.
The real reason the Maharam would not allow ransom to be paid, writes the Maharshal, was that if it would be paid, the monarchs would realize to what extent Jews are willing to go to redeem their Gedolim. If that happened, nothing would stop all the kings and emperors from demanding ransom for every Gadol, and the consequences of that would be devastating.
The same idea applies here as well. The Times points out that, of the reported kidnappings in the last five years, 17 have been from France alone. Not coincidentally, the Times managed to track down close to $60 million in ransom payments by the French government.
Conversely, the United States and Great Britain have never made a direct payment to terror groups to ransom hostages. This policy necessarily deprives them of one means of getting their abducted citizens back home. Yet between them, the United States and Great Britain have suffered only five kidnappings.
This bolsters the argument that paying ransom encourages kidnappings, and refusing to pay ransom discourages such acts of terror.
Despite France’s apparent willingness to pay, however, being from that country doesn’t guarantee a captive’s release. Of the 17 captives since 2008, only 10 made it home alive. One is still being held, and the other six died in captivity — all at the hands of their abductors.
Of the five U.S. and English captives, three are still being held, one escaped, and one was killed.
But there is a second, more important point here, besides the fact that they are essentially encouraging al-Qaida to grab their citizens by letting them know they will pay the ransom.
An incredible amount of short-sightedness accompanies these payments. Government leaders surely justify their actions by telling themselves they are saving innocent lives. But by paying well over $165 million to terror groups over the past six years, they are also giving these groups the means to continue their kidnapping tactics. Were there no payable bounty on the head of every foreigner, the groups would have to abandon the practice, both because it would be pointless, and because it would waste resources they do not have. Furthermore, as the Times points out, it is harder now than in the past for terror groups to raise capital. Collecting ransoms helps compensate for that.
One of the weapons employed by Western countries in the greater war on terror is freezing the assets of terror groups. This leaves the targeted groups with limited ability to make transactions. It is ironic that some of the same countries that are employing that tool then turn around and provide terrorists with the liquid capital they need in order to exist.
Maybe if they wouldn’t pay, these groups wouldn’t have the capability to be the global threat they are. But as they’ve shown vis-à-vis Israel, some countries just don’t grasp how a war on terror has to be waged.