Canada’s No-Ransom Policy in the New Era of Terrorism

In September 2009, Alberta resident Amanda Lindhout was far from the comforts of her home.

She was no longer surrounded by the crisp grass of Calgary, her scenery replaced by the decaying floor of a Somalian cell. Her bed was no longer a mattress, but an indent in the ground. She was a prisoner, held captive by Islamist insurgents who had subjected her to abuse in the 13 months since her abduction. As recounted in her memoir, they beat her after she attempted to escape, allegedly raped her when she begged them not to—yet, they continued to leave her with some form of twisted hope: it could all stop, they told her, as soon as they received a ransom for her release.

“You have to pay the money now. Where is the money?” Lindhout pleaded with her mother, Lorinda Stewart, in a recorded phone call that played in court this month. “Do you understand what they’re doing to me?”

As of 2015, the year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assumed office, he has consistently and publicly expressed his views of officiating a no-ransom policy in Canada, following suit with other Western countries. During the 2016 G7 summit in Japan, Trudeau was reported to have urged other major leaders to agree to stop paying ransom for the release of kidnapped citizens. This unofficial policy aims to protect citizens against the advancements that terrorists could potentially gain from ransom payments, though it has yet to establish guidelines that protect journalists and war correspondents who may encounter danger when working or traveling abroad.

“Amanda, we love you,” Stewart told her daughter, who, at the moment, was surrounded by her captors with guns pointed at her head. “We are trying so hard, Amanda. The government will not help us. We are selling everything we can.”

The phone call took place on September 9 and was saved by Stewart under the label, “The Bad Call.” It was introduced as evidence against one of Lindhout’s abductors, the accused in the court case, Ali Omar Ader.

Ader, who Lindhout had identified during her captivity as “Adam,” has pleaded not guilty to hostage-taking. He is accused of working with the rebel group who kidnapped Lindhout as well as Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan near Mogadishu, Somalia, in August 2008. The group demanded either government to pay $2 million, ensuring that if they did, both her and Brennan would be released. The deal was offered a week after their abduction, though, according to the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Global Affairs Canada’s no ransom policy, they refused to oblige.

More than a year after her abduction, Lindhout and Brennan’s ransom was paid through private donations arranged by a firm that specializes in hostage negotiations. They were released on Nov. 25, 2009. This outcome is not a common one for captured Canadians.

In 2015, two Canadian citizens—businessman John Ridsdel and journalist Robert Hall—were abducted by Abu Sayyaf militants (a division of ISIS that executes the majority of their terrorist activities throughout the Philippines) at a resort in the Philippines. The militants released a video to the Canadian government demanding they pay $100 million to release the hostages, or they would be killed. By June 2016, the ransom was not met and both of them were beheaded.

“Canada does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists, directly or indirectly,” Trudeau said at a news conference following the execution of Ridsdel. “Paying ransom for Canadians would endanger the lives of every single one of the millions of Canadians who live, work, and travel around the world every year.”

The policy, which was also enforced in the previous government leadership under Stephen Harper, has become the centre of renewed scrutiny following Ridsdel and Hall’s murders. The protocol has been implemented to involve all members of the public, though Canada has been suspected of paying various ransom demands throughout the years.

In 2009, Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were kidnapped by Al Qaeda in Africa. The government denied paying any ransom, however, in 2013, it was reported by The Associated Press that the country had paid $1.1 million for the release of both Fowler and Guay.

“Normally, diplomats and political figures are already protected or security-conscious in ways that should make them harder to kidnap, and this may be why the government is willing to ransom them; they’re already targets, and they already take precautions, so the risks to them don’t change much,” says Simon Pratt, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. His research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, examines how strategic methods by militaries, intelligence agencies, and defence policymakers influence changes in national and international societies. “It is a case where the government must avoid bailing out a small number of citizens, in order to protect a very large number of citizens.”

While the government continues to warn travellers of the dangers posed abroad, news continues to be relevant in these conflict-ridden parts of the world—which means journalists will continue to be sent there. If the government won’t help with what happens after abduction, journalists are encouraged to learn how to avoid such danger.

“There isn’t much said about what happens if you run into danger or are kidnapped or injured while on assignment for a publication,” wrote American freelance journalist Nicole Tung in an e-mail. Tung knows all too well about the consequences of conflict journalism, having worked alongside war correspondent James Foley before he was abducted and executed by ISIS in 2014. “Some publications will cover medical insurance, many do not offer or think of kidnap and ransom insurance, but it all depends on the situation and the publication.”

In 2016, it was reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists that 77 journalists were killed that year. The cause of these deaths were either a form of murder (during a crossfire), or occurred while completing a dangerous assignment. While the threats that war correspondents encounter when working abroad can never be completely prevented, there are organizations that are able to assist them in preparing for potential situations. Harris Silver, a previous infantry officer with the Canadian forces, currently works with the High Risk program at CBC. He is responsible for preparing journalists who cover conflicts. In the past, he has trained journalists for events like the civil war in Syria and the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Other organizations include the Frontline Freelance Register, Reporters Without Borders, and a media embed program run by the Department of National Defence, which provides guidance on “travel, accommodation, logistics and visas.”

“It is heartbreaking when a hostage is not as lucky as I was. I survived and have gone on to build a life for myself,” Lindhout wrote in the National Post, following the execution of John Ridsdel in 2016. “[Kidnappers] understand how to manipulate a family and its home government by making their captives suffer and by sharing that suffering in phone calls, photos or videos. But for the government to pay a ransom, as Trudeau pointed out, is to lose a larger battle.”

Lindhout’s words do not deny the dangers that ransom demands create when they are paid. If ransoms are met, terrorists will be able to further develop their armies through purchases of weapons and machinery, and creates incentive for more kidnappings. In 2015, the Financial Action Task Force conducted a report on the how much funding the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) had received through ransom payments over the span of a year. The estimation ranges from $20 million to $45 million U.S. With this funding, terrorist groups will continue to endanger the public while they work and travel abroad.

With a no-ransom policy put in place, as Trudeau mentioned, it will not only limit the amount of resources that terrorists could potentially collect, but also prevent further kidnappings once they realize the government will always refuse their demands.

While also acknowledging the weaknesses of the government’s no-ransom policy, Lindhout discusses what Canada can instead do to help victims and their families in hostage crises. In the United States, she mentioned, former president Barack Obama made it legal in 2015 for families to fundraise for ransom payments. She says there should also be more support available for families and their psychological care, which, Lindhout writes, is “something my mom feels would have helped enormously.”

As we mourn the terrible outcome of Ridsdel’s hostage-taking, we need to work together — families and government—to reduce the risks for Canadians abroad and stamp out terror forever,” Lindhout writes. “That is how we honour his memory.”

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