Thursday, August 21, 2014

Moral hazard in Algiers

There's a line of commentary on the murder of journalist James Foley by ISIL stating that it shows the difference between European and US policy on hostage negotiations i.e. that European countries pay ransoms (and so fund and incentivize further terrorism) and the US doesn't. It's set out clearly in this Reuters blog post by David Rohde, who himself survived such a kidnapping (by escaping).

Unfortunately this depressing episode reveals (among other things) how quickly previous hostage crises and the lessons thereof are forgotten. In January 2013 the big news story was the siege at the In Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria, and the decision of the Algerian military to shoot their way into the plant to relieve the siege and take the risk of some hostages dying, which they did. There was a tone of mystified superiority in much of the western media coverage of the Algerian response (a debate well reflected in this New York Times article), even though the Algerians had faced much more brutal tradeoffs than any western country in dealing with extremists; it's also worth noting that the Algerian approach does involve direct attack by ground forces and not from the safety of drones, so it's not that they are taking the easy way out.

Anyway the point is that once again, Syria is going to challenge any simple narrative of what should have been done. Paying ransoms funds terrorists, so in fact contrary to the anecdote mentioned by Rohde, it's Europeans who should be prevented from going to kidnap risk areas, not Americans. The US did send special forces to attempt a rescue, which failed, but it's not like they did nothing. It might be tempting to compare the Algerian approach to the Assad approach, but at this stage the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s looks like a model of finesse and legitimacy compared to the Assads. But there is no new moral conundrum in the Foley case.What's new is the widening circle of people who are becoming aware of it.