Why Hostage-Taking in West Africa Is a Lucrative Business

The Amenas natural gas field in the eastern central region of Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages. (AP Photo/BP) (National Journal)

"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.

The irony is that by paying these groups tens of millions of dollars to rescue their citizens, Western countries are effectively funding Islamic militancy in the region. These groups use the money to start up new training camps, pay salaries, and purchase weapons for future attacks.

In the case of AQIM, the money helped fund its takeover of Northern Mali, where the group ran the Malian military out and instituted strict Sharia law. It's also the site from which it launched its latest assault, moving further south and battling Malian, French, and other African forces.

The United States and the United Kingdom have maintained their strict policy of not paying the ransoms of terrorists, however. In the eyes of the U.S. government, the best way to discourage these kidnappings is refuse to make the payments.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered a review of the security for Americans in the region, attempting to figure out how to better protect U.S. citizens in the wake of this attack and the attack in Benghazi in September.

"The concern is that groups operating in the region may be trying to do larger scale operation,s and we want to make sure that any of our citizens and companies operating in the region are reviewing their security practices in light of this," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Thursday.

In the past, U.S. special forces have carried out several missions to rescue hostages, including in Somalia in January 2011. In this case, the Algerian military botched the rescue of the hostages. Dozens of deaths have been reported after the incident and several Westerners are unaccounted for.

It is still unclear what the militants are currently demanding for the hostages. However, it is apparent that the attack was "large, well coordinated, and heavily armed," as British Prime Minister David Cameron described it on Thursday. Most likely, though, it was funded through this lucrative business that has come to define AQIM's mission in the Sahel.