The Monday morning discourse on this weekend's failed operation to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers started with some eerie news.
As The New York Times reported, Pierre Korkie, a South African citizen who was also being held by al-Qaeda, was apparently moments away from being released when a unit of Navy SEAL Team 6 commandos sprung into action to save Somers. Both Korkie and Somers were fatally shot by their captors before they could be rescued.
Here, the first thread of a complicated jumble of policy, tragedy, and political positioning comes into focus. While South Africa, like the United States, refuses to pay ransoms for hostages, its government was said to have helped a South African charity working for Korkie's release, securing him a new passport along the way.
That the kidnappers released Korkie's wife earlier this year and that a heavily negotiated deal was struck between the charity and the terrorists holding Korkie sheds some light on how a rigid government policy can be sidestepped.
The rationale for the American policy, which is shared by the United Kingdom and South Africa, is simple. Over time, ransom payments made to terrorist groups for kidnappings provided organizations like al-Qaeda and (more recently) ISIS with millions of dollars. According to the Treasury Department, al-Qaeda netted $165 million in paid ransoms alone since 2008. Other estimates place that figure closer to $125 million.