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Jewish World Review April 9, 2002 / 28 Nisan, 5762

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mobray
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Consumer Reports

A price on the heads of Americans overseas | Reflecting a marked departure from longstanding policy, the U.S. recently facilitated a $3 million ransom payment to Al Qaeda affiliate Abu Sayyaf, according to a credible report by Fox News.

Assuming this explosive allegation is true-U.S. officials have not denied the story-then it is a disastrous move that puts the safety of Americans overseas in jeopardy, and it serves to build up the very enemy we are trying to defeat.

Compounding the tragedy is the fact that the terrorist group has received the cash, but the kidnapped American couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, has not been returned, and there are reports in the foreign press that the husband may have been killed already. It is unclear how the U.S. government could have sanctioned such a large ransom payment without simultaneously ensuring the safe release of the Christian missionaries.

Aside from the apparent colossal failure of the current situation, having the government get its hands dirty with ransom money to terrorists has potentially grave consequences. The Heritage Foundation's Dana Dillon, a southeast Asia policy expert, bluntly notes that the government's action "just encourages kidnapping of other Americans by terrorists everywhere in the world."

With expansive plans of terrorist attacks in the far reaches of the globe, members of the Al Queda network are continually scrambling to fund their evil deeds. No doubt kidnapping Americans looks mighty appealing now that the U.S. sanctions payment of ransoms.

Abu Sayyaf already knows the value of kidnapping foreigners, as they have collected some $25 million in ransoms in recent years. Although the organization's manpower has dwindled to 80-100 paid soldiers, it had ten times that strength when it was raking in massive sums.

The U.S. military has sent 660 American troops to train the Filipino soldiers, for the explicit purpose of combating the Al Qaeda affiliate in the southern islands of the Philippines. But flush with $3 million, Abu Sayyaf is going to prove a much more resilient enemy, now that they can afford more soldiers and other resources.

Money fuels terrorism, and one of the most important components of our war on terror has been freezing assets belonging to Al Qeada or any group or individual with ties to the far-flung terrorist network. The facilitation of ransom payments, however, flies in the face of our carefully plotted strategy, even if the U.S. government is handing over private money-such a distinction is meaningless to would-be kidnappers.

The danger to Americans abroad is very real-and very widespread. Al Qaeda operatives are not just in places like the Philippines or Indonesia, but also in European countries like Germany and Britain, where several of the September 11th hijackers had lived previously. U.S. government payment of a ransom to Abu Sayyaf has put a price on the heads of Americans overseas.

Common sense begs the question: why did our government sanction a ransom to terrorists? The stated rationale is that the government could use the money to track down the kidnappers, most likely thru some sort of high-tech gadgetry. Trouble is, there's no evidence to suggest that this premise will work in practice.

The official policy regarding ransoms paid with private funds was changed a month ago following the brutal murder of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. About the same time, the U.S. announced it would consider military action to free civilians captured by terrorists. Ironically, facilitating ransom payments will increase the number of cases where the military might need to act to rescue Americans held hostage.

Perhaps the ransom paid to Abu Sayyaf was booby-trapped and will lead to the ultimate defeat of the terrorist organization. But if the evil-doers escape unscathed, with the loot in hand, it will be open season on Americans abroad. The only sane approach in the event of failure will be for government officials to admit error and reaffirm the old mantra that we never negotiate with terrorists.

If Abu Sayyaf had not received $25 million in ransoms over the years, Martin and Gracia Burnham almost certainly would be breathing freedom today. Terrorists will engage in kidnapping as long as it pays for them to do so. We must be resolute in our determination to make sure it doesn't.

JWR contributor Joel Mowbray is a lifelong, practicing Catholic. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Joel Mowbray