WASHINGTON — The beheading of freelance journalist James Foley has forced a new debate between the longtime U.S. and British refusal to negotiate with terrorists, and Europe and the Persian Gulf's increasing willingness to pay ransoms in a desperate attempt to free citizens.
The dilemma: How to save the lives of those kidnapped without financing terror groups, and encouraging more kidnappings.
By paying ransoms, governments in the Mideast and Europe have become some of the biggest financiers of terror groups. By refusing to do likewise, the U.S. and Great Britain are in the thankless position of putting their own citizens at risk.
Foley's captors, the Islamic State militants, had for months demanded $132.5 million from his parents and political concessions from Washington. They got neither, and the 40-year-old freelance journalist from New Hampshire was savagely killed within the last week inside Syria, where he had been held since his disappearance in November 2012.
Extremists called his death a revenge killing for the 90 U.S. airstrikes that have been launched against ISIS in northern Iraq since Aug. 8. But the ransom demands began late last year, even before ISIS — one of the world's most financially thriving extremist groups — had begun its brutal march across much of western and northern Iraq.
"They don't need to do this for money," said Matthew Levitt, a counter-terror expert at the Washington Institute think-tank. "When you ask for $132 million, for the release of one person, that suggests that you're either trying to make a point . . . or you don't really need the money."
At the State Department, deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the militancy has collected millions of dollars in ransoms so far this year alone.
"We do not make concessions to terrorists," Harf told reporters. "We do not pay ransoms."
"The United States government believes very strongly that paying ransom to terrorists gives them a tool in the form of financing that helps them propagate what they're doing," she said. "And so we believe very strongly that we don't do that, for that reason."
The issue of payments by American families or U.S. corporations is now under debate within the Obama administration, the Associated Press reported, citing a U.S. official familiar with the conversations who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The USA Patriot Act prohibits any payment or assistance to terror groups that could boost their support.
Diplomats say ransoms paid or arranged by western European governments and the Gulf state of Qatar have provided the bulk of financial support for violent groups. That has spurred the U.S. and Britain — as well as some north African states — to push a campaign discouraging ransom payments.
Rather than pay ransoms, the United States often tries to rescue its hostages with covert military teams trained to raid extremist camps.
At least three Americans are still being held in Syria. Two of them are believed to have been kidnapped by the Islamic State.