Canada's resolve to uphold its no-ransom policy for citizens being held captive was put to the test in April when Philippine Islamist group Abu Sayyaf made good on its threats to execute a Canadian hostage. The group had been holding Canadian national John Ridsdel since it captured him and three other people in September 2015. After Canada refused to pay a ransom, the 68-year-old businessman's severed head was discovered on a street on the Philippine island of Jolo, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold.
The militants made their point: They are not bluffing. Now, less than a month later, the group is threatening to execute another hostage. The question is, will the nations whose citizens are being held negotiate with the terrorists, pay a ransom or stick to their policies, whatever the consequences?
Ridsdel's fellow hostages — another Canadian, a Norwegian and a Philippine national – are still being held. On May 15, Canadian Robert Hall said in a video released by the group that he and his Norwegian counterpart face execution on June 13 if a ransom of 600 million pesos ($12.9 million) is not paid before then.
So far, Canada is standing by its policy — at least officially. Soon after Ridsdel's death, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed the country's long-standing position that it will not make ransom payments to terrorists, a position also held by the United States and the United Kingdom, among others. These countries have reasoned that paying ransoms only encourages more hostage-taking: Militant groups would be more likely to target victims from countries willing to pay ransoms.
But in reality, the no-ransom policy does not act as a foolproof deterrent to abductions. As we have seen, Abu Sayyaf was all too eager to seize Canadian hostages, despite Ottawa's vocal unwillingness to buy their freedom. In fact, the group, which has been operating in the predominantly Muslim southern Philippines since the early 1990s, has for years funded its operations primarily through extortion and ransoms.
To some extent, hostage-taking is still profitable, not because of governments but because of private individuals. Even when the state refuses to pay, family members or employers often are willing to hand over the ransom. In Ridsdel's case, however, no one was able to pay the substantial sum demanded by the abductors, and when the Canadian authorities stuck to their no-ransom policy, Ridsdel was killed. With the threat of another victim on their hands, Canada's leaders may now be willing to consider an alternative approach.
Above and Below the Line
Governments are well aware that no-ransom policies have their limits. Having worked on numerous hostage cases over my many years as a special agent with the U.S. Department of State, I can tell you that despite the blustery official rhetoric leaders spew in speeches, behind the scenes their hostage policies are often much less black and white.
As John le Carre wrote in A Perfect Spy, "In every operation, there is an above the line and a below the line. Above the line is what you do by the book. Below the line is how you do the job."
In this case, the Canadian government is publicly going by the book, reiterating its position regarding ransoms. But much more is likely happening behind closed doors. Canada is no doubt developing and vetting contingency plans for rescue attempts, negotiations or even military operations. Whatever path Canada chooses, it will have to work closely with the Philippines, which as the host nation bears the brunt of the responsibility for protecting people traveling within its borders.
A more active response on Canada's part would entail risks. By attempting a hostage rescue, Canadian and Philippine troops could put the captives in jeopardy. Meanwhile, formal negotiations would undermine the hard line that Canada has followed for decades with hostage-takers.
Still, Ridsdel's death highlights the stark truth that these hostages are already in incredible danger. Abu Sayyaf has made it clear that it will follow through on its threats. Without either a shift in policy or a well-executed secret military operation, Canada may have to watch another of its citizens perish at the hands of Islamist militants.