Episode 792: The Ransom Problem

Sep 1, 2017

Amanda Lindhout traveled to Somalia to report on a humanitarian crisis. She was no stranger to dangerous countries; she had reported from Iraq and Afghanistan. But almost immediately after she arrived in Somalia, she was captured by a criminal gang whose members seemed to have ties to terror groups. The gang phoned her mother and demanded a large ransom payment.

Amanda knew right away that wasn't going to happen. Her government doesn't pay ransom. The U.S., Canada, and the U.K. all have "no concessions" policies on ransom. There was even a law that forbade Amanda's family from raising money to pay. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. If you pay a ransom once, you're incentivizing kidnapping. It sends the wrong message: There's a market for hostages.

Amanda spent 15 months in captivity. All the while, her family was trying to get her released without violating the law. Her ordeal illustrates a question that has troubled nations for centuries: Does forbidding the payment of ransom really reduce kidnappings? Or does it just get people killed?

The United States, the U.K., and Canada, have for decades--if not centuries-- maintained a no-ransom policy, particularly when it comes to terror groups. But following a surge in kidnappings after 9/11, researchers started to study the incidence of kidnapping, and the outcomes, and they've formed some opinions on whether the so-called "no-concessions" policy really keeps citizens safer.

Amanda Lindhout has chronicled her story in the book, A House In The Sky.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Some people are just born restless. Amanda Lindhout is like that. She's from a small city in Canada. And when she was little, her favorite thing to do was sit in her bed and flip through a pile of National Geographic magazines.

AMANDA LINDHOUT: And I used to look at the pictures on those pages and just lose myself.

KING: So when she was 19, Amanda started backpacking to the most extreme places she could find. This, of course, drove her mother absolutely nuts, like this one time Amanda went to Pakistan.

LINDHOUT: She was like, you're being so reckless. You know, and I had an amazing time in Pakistan. And I think I probably rubbed it in a little bit when I came back from that trip. Like, Pakistan was the best place I ever went, Mom. See?

KING: (Laughter).

BRYANT URSTADT, HOST:

In her early 20s, Amanda jumped at the chance to do stuff like this. She got little freelance assignments for her local newspaper, the Red Deer Advocate. And she went to more and more dangerous places - Iraq, Afghanistan.

KING: And then in August of 2008, Amanda got a freelance assignment in Somalia. She was going to do a story from a refugee camp. Somalia in '08 was what policy people call a failed state. There was no central government. Different neighborhoods were controlled by warring clans. It was basically a war zone.

URSTADT: And so the first couple days, she's stuck in the area around her hotel in Mogadishu. But about three days in, her local guide gives her the OK.

LINDHOUT: You know, the roads were clear. And it was a good day to travel.

URSTADT: So she and a photographer and a translator and some local guides - they all pile into a big, white SUV, and they head out. And for a while, there's nothing - just roads, scrub trees, dust.

KING: She still remembers the music she was listening to.

LINDHOUT: Like old music from my teenage years. I was listening to Ace of Base.

KING: And then she feels the SUV slow down. And she looks to the left, and there's a car pulled over on the side of the road. And about a dozen men rush out from behind it.

LINDHOUT: And they ran out across the road, pointing AK-47s at our vehicle. All of their faces were completely wrapped in checkered scarves, with only their eyes showing through.

KING: They pull Amanda out of the SUV. They put a gun to her head. They search the car. And then they tell her, get back in the SUV. And they drive.

LINDHOUT: For, I'd say, about 45 minutes just straight through the desert.

KING: To a little maze of a village. They take her to a tin building, and they throw her into a dark room.

URSTADT: And a while later, a tall skinny man walks into the room. He's wearing an orange polo shirt. He's got Ben Franklin glasses. And he says, I'm Adam. And then he says, where are you from?

KING: And she says, Canada.

LINDHOUT: And that is when he said, Allah has put it in my heart to ask for a ransom. What do you think? And I started crying. And I said to him, my family is poor.

URSTADT: And Amanda tells him something else that she has known for a long time.

LINDHOUT: My government is not going to pay for me.

KING: The government is not going to pay ransom. Canada and the U.S. have what's called a no-concessions policy on paying ransom, especially to terror groups. We don't negotiate. The Canadian and U.S. governments will not pay. So what Amanda says next might sound like she's playing a game of chicken. But she is completely serious. She says...

KING: He may as well kill me now because there is going to be no money for me. And he looked at me very coldly. And he said, are you ready to die?

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL TEPER AND PETER HAIJOFF'S "SPINNING PIANO")

KING: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Noel King.

URSTADT: And I'm Bryant Urstadt.

KING: Today on the show, should you ever pay ransom? In cases like this, we want two things. When someone is kidnapped, governments and families want to get them home.

URSTADT: But at the same time, no one wants to pay terrorists or professional kidnappers lots of money. It just gives them more resources and more reason to kidnap more people in the future. Countries have been dealing with this problem at the highest levels more and more lately. The U.S. and Canada have this no concessions policy. We don't pay ransom. Other countries do pay ransom to get their citizens out.

KING: One of these approaches has to be right or, at least, more right than the other one. And that is what Amanda and her family were going to find out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: The men who took Amanda were a criminal gang. They weren't some big terrorist group. But they did tell her that they were soldiers in a holy war. And the question of money first came up right after she was taken. She was being driven through the desert. And she turned to one of the guys sitting next to her.

LINDHOUT: And I think it was me that actually asked just outright, is this about money? And he says, yes. Yes, it is.

URSTADT: And at first, she's relieved.

LINDHOUT: Which sounds - might sound strange. But it was like, OK, they're not driving us out into the desert to cut - you know, cut our heads off.

URSTADT: But then a second later, it sinks in.

LINDHOUT: My family - my mom, who was working at a bakery making minimum wage, and my father were not going to be able to come up with, you know, whatever this ransom number was going to be.

KING: The number, it turned out, was $1.5 million. It was probably a number that they picked at random.

URSTADT: But it's a number that would freak any family out. Most people don't have that. And even if they did have it, there is this policy.

LINDHOUT: My mother was actually - I mean, not threatened. But she was certainly made aware of the fact that paying a ransom in Canada is against the law. And to pay a ransom and even to fundraise for a ransom, actually, is against the law and holds, like, you know, a sentence of 10 years in prison for doing that.

KING: We actually spoke to Amanda's mom. Her name is Lorinda Stewart. She's back in Canada, and now she's in the middle of this. She actually got the call from Amanda's dad. And she remembers that she was visiting a friend that day.

LORINDA STEWART: And I thought, OK, I've got to get home. And I got my car. And I was totally lost. I've driven the roads hundreds of times. But I couldn't find my way, kept making wrong turns. I believe I was in shock.

KING: You might hear a tremor in Lorinda Stewart's voice there. She says that tremor has been in her voice since this incident happened. She was about to start working with the government.

URSTADT: And what the government wanted was to get Amanda home without giving money to criminals.

KING: They did have a protocol in place for cases like this. They set up a command center in the town where Amanda's dad lived. They had a war room with maps and charts and graphs. And when Adam and the other kidnappers would call and demand the ransom, there was a plan in place. Hostage negotiators were living with Amanda's mom around the clock. They trained her to stay calm. Don't yell. Have an answer for everything.

URSTADT: She would say something like, we can't give you money. But we can do things to improve your country like build a school - like build a hospital. Lorinda says the government told her, we do this all the time. It works.

STEWART: And they had said they had an impeccable record of bringing hostages home. So I thought, this would be a win-win. A country as poor as Somalia could desperately use help.

KING: But Amanda's captors didn't want aid. They wanted money. And this goes on for months. They move Amanda from house to house. And things get worse. They beat her. She gets very sick. And they rape her. She does, at one point, try to escape. She slips out a window and actually makes it as far as a local mosque. But they catch her again. And all this time, the kidnappers are calling Amanda's mom. They're calling Lorinda dozens of times. They're threatening her. They're giving her terrible updates. And all of this is meant to get her mom to pay that ransom.

STEWART: It was excruciating for me to have been on the calls with that. It was just beyond what any parent should ever have to go through.

KING: And then after a year, something big shifts. Three people from the government call Amanda's mom into a meeting.

URSTADT: They say, look, this isn't going how we'd hoped. We're not making progress. And we're dropping your case.

STEWART: I was in a bit of a panic. I said, like, you guys promised me. Now you're dropping me.

KING: Lorinda says one of them tells her explicitly, it is still illegal for you to pay ransom.

URSTADT: But, they say, no one has ever been prosecuted for paying ransom.

STEWART: The fellows who spoke to me said - basically told me what the law was. But then they told me that I had the freedom to go ahead and raise the ransom and to pay it.

KING: Raise the money and pay it. So here you see the crack between the ideal version of how this policy works and how it plays out in the real world. We actually reached out to the Canadian government to ask them about this. And they told us, we don't comment on specific cases.

URSTADT: Lorinda says the agents told her, call a private company that specializes in these types of negotiations. And she did. And they told her right away, you are going to have to pay ransom to get your daughter back.

KING: But Amanda's family didn't have anything close to a million and a half dollars. So they tried to get the number lower. Meanwhile, back in Somalia, Amanda is overhearing these phone conversations. And she can tell it's not going well.

LINDHOUT: They said to her, you think we're playing games? You'll see our games.

KING: I mean, these guys had been holding Amanda for a year, expecting something. And they are being told no. There's still no money. They were furious. And Lorinda realized she was going to have to get some money together.

LINDHOUT: I mean, the love of a mother, right? She started booking meetings with, you know, high-powered business people in the city in the city of Calgary, people that she did not know. But she would talk their secretaries into, you know, giving her 10 minutes. And then she would go in, and she had a little binder that she had put together with my picture on the cover that was called Amanda's Adventures. And then inside were all these pictures of me out in the world and articles I had written. And the most amazing thing - people gave. I mean, like, thousands of people gave to my family. I mean, you know, $5 or $200,000 - people gave.

URSTADT: And then one afternoon 15 months after she'd been kidnapped, a man came into the room where she was being held. And he sawed off her chains, and he put her into a car. And there was another long drive into the desert in total silence.

LINDHOUT: The sun went down, and it was dark. And we kept driving.

URSTADT: They moved her from car to car in the darkness. And after hours of this, they finally stopped.

LINDHOUT: And then a Somali man came over to the side of the vehicle and tapped on the window. And I rolled it down. He hands me a cellphone. I was really confused. But I took it, and I put it to my ear. And my mother was on the other end. And she said to me, Amanda, you're free.

URSTADT: She was free.

LINDHOUT: I had had so many dreams in captivity like that that I - what I did in that instant was, like, I pinched my arm. And even though I could feel it, I was sure, like, this was a dream.

KING: OK. Listening to that, it's impossible not to rejoice with Amanda. The thing is when her family paid ransom, they did exactly what governments are trying to prevent. They gave money to criminals.

LINDHOUT: I mean, I live with that every day. And that doesn't feel good. Did we then, yes, contribute to that ongoing problem globally of hostage-taking by rewarding these guys and paying them a ransom? did. We definitely did.

URSTADT: Do you agree with the no-ransom policy? Does that seem like an effective way to handle it?

LINDHOUT: I actually think it makes sense. I think the government position to not pay ransoms is put in place to protect us so that we don't become targets of kidnappings from individuals who would look for targets like that.

KING: This is kind of astonishing. Amanda, who got free because her mom went around the policy, still says she thinks this policy keeps us safer.

URSTADT: Like most people, she believes that if you don't pay for hostages, there will be no market for hostages.

KING: Here's the really interesting thing about the no-concessions policy. It's been around forever, but there haven't been many detailed studies of whether or not it actually works. There hasn't been that much data. And then after 9/11, because there was this big uptick in people being kidnapped by terror groups, all of a sudden, we did have data. We did have numbers to look at. And people started to look into it.

URSTADT: One of them was Peter Bergen, a journalist and an analyst at the New America Foundation. And people were coming to him for answers.

PETER BERGEN: It began with some family members of people who were taken hostage in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I know a fair amount about the political situation in those countries. And they came to me for advice.

KING: Fair amount is actually a bit of an understatement. Bergen spent years in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He actually interviewed Osama bin Laden. And it is possible that he could've been kidnapped at some point.

URSTADT: So Peter Bergen and his partners at the New America Foundation - they get all this data, and they start to analyze it.

BERGEN: And we focused on the really difficult cases, which are people who are taken by jihadist terrorist groups or other insurgent groups.

URSTADT: And in the end, they have 1,400 cases that they can look at.

KING: And he looked at how government policy works out in real life. So OK. There are two groups. There are the no-concessions countries, the United States, Canada, the U.K. And then there's a second group. These are countries that will make a deal - the French, the Italians, the Spanish, the Swiss, the Germans.

URSTADT: They don't go around advertising it, but these governments pay ransom. They deliver cash, and they mark it in their budget as foreign aid. So the world has been running this kind of horrible experiment. And here's what Peter Bergen found.

BERGEN: The outcomes for Americans were twice as bad as they were for every other Westerners. And the only people who came close in terms of bad outcomes were the British.

URSTADT: And when you say twice as bad, what are you saying?

BERGEN: Well, double the number of Americans proportionately were killed by their captors.

KING: Americans are twice as likely to be killed in captivity. This could mean killing Americans in and of itself has value. It has propaganda value. Or it could mean that Europeans paying ransom gets people home. Or it could mean both of those things. But either way, if not everybody sticks to the same policy, it's a problem.

URSTADT: Yeah. And for an individual like Amanda Lindhout, out there is a huge reason to break these rules.

KING: The no-concessions policy is meant to prevent kidnappings and to help hostages. But the numbers are saying it doesn't do either of those things. First, there's no evidence that Americans are kidnapped less often. And there is evidence to suggest that Americans do worse in captivity.

URSTADT: It's a policy that makes sense on paper. But in the real world, there is always going to be some poor mother with a binder filled with pictures of her kid. And the system breaks down.

KING: Yeah. We saw the system start to break down around the summer of 2014. ISIS was holding American hostages and European hostages. The Americans were not paying ransom, but some of the Europeans were. So ISIS was killing the Americans and letting the Europeans who'd paid ransom go. After that summer, President Obama starts a review of our policy. Is it keeping people safe? We talked to a couple of people who worked on that policy review. And they told us Obama saw that the system could be better. And so a year later in 2015, Obama comes out, and he announces a very small but very significant tweak to the no concessions policy.

URSTADT: He said the government is still not going to pay ransom. That is just completely off the table. But for families who can raise money or even hire a private company, the government will not get in the way.

KING: And this means that money will go to terror groups, and it will go to criminals. That's what happened in Amanda's case. All that money her family raised - it disappeared into Somalia. And she thinks about this all the time.

LINDHOUT: Every person who gave to that ransom understood that it was going to go to criminals and probably not be put to good use. But they had determined that my life was worth it. And so I guess what I try to do with that is to live a life that is worth it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AL LETHBRIDGE'S "PAMPA DRIVE")

KING: And she is very sincere about that. After she was released, Amanda forgave her captors. She really did. She thought about them for a long time and realized they grew up in a country where there was no government. They never had a chance. And so when she got home, Amanda raised more money to send to Somalia. But this time, she knew where it was going. She started a foundation to send Somali women and girls to school.

(SOUNDBITE OF SACHA JAMES COLLISSION'S "FEELS SO GOOD")

KING: We're always looking for story ideas. You can send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org.

URSTADT: Today's show was produced by Elizabeth Kulas, Nick Fountain, Sally Helm and was edited by Alex Goldmark.

KING: Big thanks to a couple of people who helped us out with this episode - Joshua Geltzer of Georgetown Law's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Gary Noesner, who wrote the book "Stalling For Time: My Life As An FBI Hostage Negotiator." We also relied on the reporting of Rukmini Callimachi, whose reporting on ransom payouts for The New York Times is unparalleled. Thank you. I'm Noel King.

URSTADT: And I'm Bryant Urstadt. Thank you for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SACHA JAMES COLLISSION'S "FEELS SO GOOD")

KING: So Bryant, while we were reporting this, there was actually a big update to Amanda's story. It's something that happened after she got home.

URSTADT: The police set up a sting operation to catch Adam.

KING: Adam, the guy who was always calling her mom for ransom.

URSTADT: Yeah. And they get in touch with Adam in Somalia. They tell him this insane lie, which is that an agent wants to give him a book deal - that Amanda had forgiven him, which is true. And he believed them. This guy who had spent more than a year terrorizing Amanda got on a plane and flew to Ottawa. And police arrested him at the airport. And he is in jail now. And he goes on trial in October. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.