ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Prior to James Foley's murder, the militant Islamist group that was holding him apparently had a different plan. They were demanding millions of dollars for Foley's release and the U.S. refused to pay. New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi has written about this case and also about how many other Western governments approach ransom demands very differently. They pay up in many cases, in effect, funding al-Qaida operations.
Rukmini Callimachi, welcome to the program.
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: And first let's talk about James Foley. How did you learn about the ransom demands made by the group that calls itself the Islamic State?
CALLIMACHI: I learned of the ransom demand first from other hostages who were held alongside him and then I was able to confirm it through Phil Balboni, who was James Foley's editor at GlobalPost.
SIEGEL: And was the price that his captors were asking exceptionally high?
CALLIMACHI: It was a hundred million euros, which is an insane demand. Usually the way these things work is, they start out at a crazy figure and then there's a negotiation to come down to something more reasonable.
SIEGEL: As you've written, the U.S. and Britain don't pay ransoms but several European countries have paid a collective tens of millions of dollars to spare the lives of their citizens. Who's paying?
CALLIMACHI: That's right. I was able to determine that European governments have paid up to $125 million, just in the last five years, to pay for the release of European citizens that were being held by al-Qaida and its direct branches in Africa and the Middle East. And according to the U.S. Department of Treasury, this has now become the main source of funding for al-Qaida.
SIEGEL: And which countries are most apt to quickly agree to pay ransoms?
CALLIMACHI: Well, we know from speaking to members of these terror groups that their performed hostages are French and Spanish.
SIEGEL: Who else pays? What are the other countries you've documented paying ransoms?
CALLIMACHI: We've documented for sure Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and France.
SIEGEL: I mean, this poses a horrible question which is, is an American hostage less valuable because the U.S. isn't going to pay a ransom, or more endangered because it's more likely they'll just kill them instead?
CALLIMACHI: Definitely more in danger. There's two things going on. On the one hand, the fact that the U.S. and Britain do not pay ransoms - at least in the research I've done, it seems to have protected Americans at the outset. Of the 53 known hostages that have been taken by al-Qaida's immediate affiliates in the past five years, less than 6 percent of those were American. And if you think about that, that's kind of astonishing, given America's outsized rule in Iraq and in the Afghanistan conflicts, which are conflicts that have fueled the Islamist extremist movement. By contrast, almost a third of the hostages that I was able to track were French.
SIEGEL: Because as you say, it's understood that the French will pay?
CALLIMACHI: Exactly. So at the outset I think that Americans are perhaps more protected by this policy, but then, the flipside of it is what if you are an American and you're taken? And James Foley's horrific death is, I think, a case in point.
SIEGEL: Since your story was published and the Treasury offered that estimate of what a meaningful source of revenue ransom payments are for these groups - that the same governments are then combating - have you gotten any wind of any rethinking of that policy of paying ransoms?
CALLIMACHI: I know that in every European country that we named where we cited negotiators and others stating that ransoms were paid, local newspapers carried versions of our stories. And I know from many of the counterterrorism officials that I speak to that in those specific countries, they began receiving phone calls from government officials. So I think perhaps the behind the scenes there's a little bit of hand wringing, but as David Rhode has said, this discussion about ransoms has been in the shadows. And it's not been lifted out of the shadows yet. I think it's going to take a concerted effort across the Atlantic for a discussion about this to emerge in order for this practice to either stop, or else for America to have a coordinated response to its European allies in these instances.
SIEGEL: Well, Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times, thanks for talking with us.
CALLIMACHI: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: Rukmini Callimachi has reported for The New York Times on the practice of several European countries paying ransoms for hostages taken by al-Qaida related groups. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.