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Spoils of kidnapping are financing al-Qaida, reveals New York Times

July 30, 2014 at 6:32 PM EST
An investigation by The New York Times reveals that European and Gulf state governments have routinely paid millions of dollars in ransoms to win the release of their citizens kidnapped by al-Qaida. Judy Woodruff talks to Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times about the coordinated effort to turn a profit with foreign hostages.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A new report today documents how al-Qaida is bringing in money to finance its operations. An investigation by The New York Times reveals that European and Gulf state governments have routinely paid millions of dollars in ransom to win the release of their citizens kidnapped by al-Qaida.

In all, since 2008, $125 million has been paid out by France, Switzerland, Spain, and Austria, as well as Qatar and Oman. The report also says that three different al-Qaida affiliates coordinate their efforts and abide by a common kidnapping protocol.

Here to tell us more is reporter Rukmini Callimachi, who wrote the story.

We welcome you to the program.

Tell us first of all about how these groups operate. It turns out, as we just said, that it seems more coordinated than I think most people would expect.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, The New York Times: Yes, exactly.

It’s much more coordinated than I think — than I think we realized. There’s a letter that I was able to recover in Mali last year when I was on assignment there for the AP. And it was a letter from a leading cell in North Africa under al-Qaida’s tutelage to a commander who had botched the ransom negotiations for a hostage that he had.

And in the letter, one of the things that they say to him is that he had gotten a much lower ransom figure because he had decided to negotiate the ransom himself, rather than — rather than letting their leaders in Pakistan, a reference to al-Qaida central, carry out the negotiations.

So what is clear is that these kidnappings are not just by individual units in far-flung places in the world. They’re actually being coordinated by al-Qaida core.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And has this become the principal source of funding for al-Qaida? Because we — I know we talked to some other terror — terrorist experts today who said it is a central source of funding for al-Qaida on the African continent, maybe less so for other branches.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Well, we just — one of the other documents that we were able to find in Mali last year was a letter from the number two of al-Qaida, who is the head of al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen.

And in that letter, he advises other jihadists to begin kidnapping. And says that the spoils of kidnapping now represent 50 percent of his operating revenue. So, in their own words, they’re saying that ransoms have become very important. The U.S. Department of Treasury has said as much, that ransoms have now become the main source of financing for the terror network.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How are the hostages treated? Because, on the one hand, they are threatened with their lives every moment they’re held captive. On the other hand, the captors want to keep them healthy in order to get the ransom.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: That’s exactly it.

A decade ago, when Westerners were taken by al-Qaida, it was specifically to kill them in the most gruesome possible way to make a political statement. Now, when hostages are taken, the goal is to keep them alive and to trade them for either money or for a prisoner exchange.

So I was able to speak to numerous hostages who were held both in Africa and in Yemen. And several people told me that, when they fell ill, that there was a very — there was a logistics in place to deal with whatever their illness was.

One woman had breast cancer. They were able to bring in breast cancer medication. One person had a kidney ailment. They were able to truck in specialized kidney medicine. And, in general, this is a business for them. They see the hostages as a commodity. And having them die on you is not useful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rukmini Callimachi, talk about how the different governments in Europe that we mentioned deal with this, because you point out the United States and Great Britain don’t pay typically a ransom for hostages, but these other governments do. How do they arrive at that philosophy? And we have to say that they publicly deny they’re doing this.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Exactly.

So all of the governments deny that they pay ransoms. I was able, through a lot of footwork, to finally track down several of the main negotiators, both on the European side and on the African and the Yemen side, who are the ones who made the bridge with the al-Qaida groups.

And what they’re doing is, the European governments are often paying these ransoms, but they’re hiding them by calling it an aid payment to the country where the hostages are being kept. For instance, the very — one of the very first ransoms was in 2003. It was paid by Germany.

And I was able to speak to six officials who confirmed that Germany sent a high-level emissary with three suitcases of cash. He arrived in the capital of Mali, in Bamako. He handed them over to the president of Mali. And in the budget for that year, they wrote it off as humanitarian aid to Mali.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, al-Qaida has seen this as a systematically — as a successful thing for them to do? Because one assumes that there are operations that don’t work out for them.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Yes.

There have for sure been rescue attempts by France, also by the United States when their people have been taken, so there is some risk to it. But what struck me when I was speaking to these various former hostages is, in general, just how easy it is to take foreigners like us.

When you point a gun at an unarmed civilian, what are they going to do? Very few people run. The majority just put up their hands and go with their captors. And once they’re being held in North Africa or in Yemen, they’re in the desert. And they’re hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from anywhere.

And so the hostages say that, even though they obsessively think about running away, even though they’re not chained up, they find themselves in an open-air prison. And so they’re able to hold them for the requisite amount of time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, finally, a question about, Are governments coming up with strategies to deal with this? Are they telling tourists? Because, so often — I was struck by how many people who were taken hostage were simply tourists in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Are governments saying to people, don’t go to certain countries or parts of countries? How are governments reacting?

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Yes, for sure.

And the arc of this is that, in the early years, starting in 2003…

JUDY WOODRUFF: My apology. We apparently have — we have lost the signal from New York City.

Rukmini Callimachi with The New York Times, we apologize. Sometimes, that happens. We will be back.