A multitude of rebel brigades with disparate ideologies, religious interpretations, leaders and foreign patrons are fighting against the Syrian regime. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is one such force, having grown more prominent since it announced its entrance onto the Syrian battlefield in 2013. Not only has the group distinguished itself militarily, it is also one of the only transnational groups fighting in Syria and it adheres to a strict Salafist-jihadist ideology that causes its tactics, terms of governance and proclaimed goals to differ greatly from those of most other rebel brigades. As we have discussed before, the tactics used by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are much more austere than those of its counterparts, and focus more on the group’s overarching aspirations to establish an Islamic emirate in the Levant and control vast swaths of territory rather than on merely defeating loyalist forces and overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
One specific aspect that sets the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant apart from most other rebel brigades is its adoption of the tactic of kidnapping foreigners for ransom inside Syria. On April 19, Turkish soldiers found four French journalists blindfolded and with their hands bound on the border with Syria; they had been set free roughly eight months after their June 2013 abduction by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants. Although French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius has insisted that the French government does not pay ransoms, it has been reported that $18 million was paid to secure the journalists’ release.
Kidnapping for Ransom in the Levant
This is not the first time a foreigner has been kidnapped for ransom in Syria, but it is one of the highest-profile cases and allegedly involved the largest ransom payment since the Syrian conflict began. Elsewhere in the region, Iraqi al Qaeda militants regularly kidnapped foreigners during the Iraq War, especially in 2004 and 2005. Following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the many foreigners in the country served as prime targets for the newly formed al Qaeda in Iraq. The militant group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of hundreds of foreigners — some of whom, like Nick Berg, were killed in grisly beheading videos, while others were released for multimillion-dollar ransoms. During the height of al Qaeda in Iraq’s kidnappings for ransom, the group secured anywhere between $5 million and $15 million for hostages from Western countries.
Al Qaeda in Iraq issued varied demands for hostage releases, including a complete withdrawal of foreign troops or businesses. Because removing all foreign entities from Iraq in exchange for one hostage was so improbable, it seemed that the goal of those kidnappings was to send a message of defiance to foreign governments by terrorizing and eventually killing their citizens. At other times, the group would seek hefty ransoms from the foreign governments. These ransoms were used to fund and expand the group’s operations against occupying forces in the country. Often the hostages’ fates would depend on their nationality — citizens of countries that were less likely to negotiate and were highly symbolic, such as the United States, were typically executed, while citizens of countries that usually pay ransoms, such as Italy and Spain, were ransomed and released.
Many al Qaeda in Iraq militants are now fighting in Syria and northwestern Iraq with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, with the group’s Syrian and foreign fighters under the leadership of Iraqi militants. Because of the large presence of Iraqi militants now fighting in Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s use of kidnapping for ransom is not necessarily new, but rather a resumed tactic in a new theater.
Kidnapping for Ransom Elsewhere in the Middle East
Kidnapping for ransom is not just specific to militants in Iraq and Syria. Several other al Qaeda regional nodes, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have used the tactic as well. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has relied heavily on kidnappings for ransom in the Sahel and North Africa for more than a decade. In 2003 the group’s predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, kidnapped 32 tourists in southeastern Algeria. Although many of these hostages were freed after rescue operations involving gunfights with the militants, others were not freed until Germany paid a sizable ransom. Al Qaeda’s North African branch has continued the practice ever since, using ransom money to purchase weapons, food and clothing for its militants and recruits and to pay bribes to help gain the allegiance of local tribes.
Large ransoms are also a major form of funding for the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its activities. Prior to the unification of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda, both groups had carried out kidnappings, but rather than demanding large ransoms they would often call for the release of other al Qaeda militants in exchange for the hostages. After the group’s merger in 2009, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began to greatly increase the number of kidnappings for ransom it carried out. It was during this time that Western governments began to crack down heavily on money transfers from foreign backers who had provided the group with much-needed funding. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — like al Qaeda’s North African branch — therefore began relying on the tens of millions of dollars gained from ransoms to sustain and expand its operations. The group’s reliance on kidnapping was even documented by a letter that the group’s leader, Nasir al-Wahayshi, sent to the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leadership.
Unlike al Qaeda’s branches in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant already has a steady stream of funding and a well-established organization. The group receives significant funds from private donors in the Levant and abroad, in addition to the revenue it gains from oil and natural gas fields it controls and operates in Syria. The group also receives some money from taxes levied against citizens residing in towns and cities in Syria under its control. Therefore, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant likely resumed kidnappings for ransom because the opportunity has arisen with the presence of Western journalists, aid workers and doctors in Syria. As these kidnappings persist, heightened security will likely be practiced in Syria and the flow of foreigners will probably decrease, which could constrain the group’s ability to continue using the tactic in the long term.
Costs and Constraints
When foreigners are present, kidnapping for ransom is a low-cost, low-risk way to gain millions of dollars per hostage in funding, with higher ransoms likely when the hostages are Western. There are, however, some potential constraints against using kidnappings for ransom. First, the group must be able to devote the manpower and resources needed to kidnap the target and then sustain a potentially long-term hostage. For many established militant groups, this is not much of an issue; taking hostages is often relatively straightforward, requiring the careful selection and surveillance of the target, a small group of individuals to kidnap the target and enough resources to ensure the life of the target can be protected until a ransom is secured. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has ample men and firearms, as well as bases and training camps in remote, ungoverned spaces where they can easily hold hostages.
In many countries where kidnapping for ransom is an established practice, militant groups work with tribes or criminal groups in the initial kidnapping stage. Both al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been known to purchase hostages from a tribal group and transport them to al Qaeda territory where the hostages can be kept for months, sometimes years. Such was the case with a Swiss teacher who was kidnapped in 2012 by armed tribesmen in western Yemen, then sold and transferred to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the eastern Shabwah province, where she was held for more than a year. Working with local tribes and criminal gangs reduces the risk posed to militant groups. The price paid to these tribes is also low in comparison to the ransoms procured when the hostages are released.
It may be more difficult for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant to find local groups willing to kidnap Westerners, considering that most rebel groups in Syria want to devote their manpower and resources to battling al Assad’s forces rather than carrying out kidnapping campaigns. Additionally, some rebel groups receive backing from Western nations and their allies and therefore would not openly participate in attacks against citizens from these countries. Moreover, some groups have fought fiercely against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Even if the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant did not get help from another group in abducting foreign targets, it has a large membership with extensive training in terrorist tradecraft that would be useful in a kidnapping operation.
The next constraint involves obtaining ransoms. As a general rule, foreign governments will do all they can to avoid paying ransoms in an effort to avoid providing militants with funds. If the country where the hostage is being held is relatively stable, the foreign government may attempt to stage a raid on the suspected location of the hostage or work with the local government to release the individual without paying a ransom. Other times, the foreign government may attempt to negotiate with the militant group, offering a prisoner exchange instead, as was seen in the release of the Jordanian ambassador to Libya.
However, both of these methods can have undesirable and deadly repercussions. In a war-torn country like Syria, and in dealing with such a notoriously ruthless group, foreign governments are not likely to attempt risky missions or negotiations and instead would either pay the ransom or leave the hostage. However, governments are not the only potential sources of ransom; foreign companies, insurance providers and even family members could offer ransom payments for the release of hostages. Sometimes third countries will even intervene in an attempt to resolve a hostage crisis and pay the ransom demanded, even if the victim’s home country will not do so. For example, Qatar has reportedly paid for the release of some hostages held by rebel groups in Syria, although this practice could have been intended as an indirect way for Qatar to channel support to anti-regime forces while appearing to be helpful to the rest of the world.
The third constraint to carrying out kidnapping for ransom is that in doing so, the responsible group could make itself even more of a target. In the case of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the accelerated kidnapping of foreigners — especially from Western countries — could leave the group vulnerable to even more pressure from the international community and other Syrian rebel groups. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is already on many Western nations’ lists of terrorist groups, and there is a limit to the type of direct involvement countries like the United States will pursue in Syria and Iraq. Western nations could work with groups like the Free Syrian Army — to which the United States provides military aid and funding — in an effort to thwart kidnapping efforts by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. However, because the Free Syrian Army is already a target of other rival rebel brigades, such agreements are not likely.
Even without Western-backed pressure to intercede, an increased use of kidnapping for ransom could drive other, more secular rebel groups in Syria to clash with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Any form of prolonged infighting is detrimental to the rebel movement, but it is something that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is prepared to deal with, should it arise as a result of a sustained kidnapping for ransom campaign.
Each of these constraints is something the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has either already faced or is well-equipped to face. The relatively low cost of carrying out kidnappings, the presence of foreigners in Syria, and the high ransoms that can be secured — particularly for Westerners — mean that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant can be expected to continue the practice as long as it remains profitable. As the group continues to obtain high ransoms, it will be able to further expand its influence and control within Syria and Iraq, moving closer to its goal of establishing an Islamic emirate in the region.
“In Syria, Militants Revive Kidnapping for Ransom is republished with permission of Stratfor.”