"We will not negotiate with terrorists." It's a line cemented in pop culture, ingraining the idea that Western nations will not succumb to the demands of militants that hold their citizens. But that's not always the case in Western Africa.
While the global media is focused on the current hostage crisis in remote southern Algeria, where several Americans and other Westerners are still being held at an oil complex, many of the countries affected have been in this situation before.
In recent years, al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb, the main militant outfit in that part of the Sahel, has profited immensely from the business of hostage-taking, along with drug-trafficking and goods-smuggling. In these operations, AQIM usually targets European aid workers, tourists, and others working in the energy sector.
"This is the end result of the willingness of certain European governments to pay hostages," said Richard Downie, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They've enabled AQIM to metamorphosize into this threat that it's posing today."
In 2011, the average ransom payment to these groups by Western nations was $5.4 million per hostage, Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said at an October speech in London. That is up from $4.5 million just a year earlier. In the last eight years, Cohen explained, these militant groups have collected approximately $120 million in ransom payments.