This past weekend’s Navy SEAL mission to rescue Luke Somers, an American held by al-Qaeda in Yemen, ended in tragedy when the terrorists holding the photojournalist killed him and his cellmate, South African Pierre Korkie, before they could be rescued. Like all military disasters, the attempt is subject to second-guessing about the risks that were taken. But adding to the anguish of this failure is the revelation that, unbeknownst to the U.S., a South African charity had already negotiated a ransom for Korkie and he was supposed to be released the day after the attempt to free him took place. This opens up President Obama, who personally ordered the mission, as well as the U.S. policy of no negotiations or ransoms for American hostages, to criticism. But as unfortunate as these events may be, the president was right.
This is not the first time that U.S. policy has been called into question by the outcome of a terrorist kidnapping. Back in September, the family of James Foley, an American who was murdered by his ISIS captors after the U.S. refused to ransom him, criticized the government for not only not saving their son but also for their attempts to prevent them from negotiating a ransom. As far as the Foleys were concerned, the Obama administration had sacrificed their loved one in order to make a political point. The fact that earlier in the year, the same government had negotiated with the Taliban for the freedom of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. solider who had been captured under suspicious circumstances, added hypocrisy to the charges.
But as much as the anguish of the Foleys and the Korkie family is understandable, the president’s decision to choose rescue rather than ransom was entirely correct.
Rather than approach this sad outcome as a human-interest story in which an uncaring government let innocents die to prove a point, our focus should remain on the fact that the West is engaged in a war with Islamist terrorists. Kidnapping is a major source of income for both ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. These groups profit handsomely from trades for Western hostages and use the funds they acquire to not only kidnap more victims but to strengthen their ability to threaten vital Western interests. Simply put, without the sums they have extracted from European governments in exchange for their citizens, ISIS would not currently be in possession of much of Syria and Iraq.
Unfortunately, the problem with ransoms is not limited to the aid the transactions give to the terrorists. By not coordinating with Western governments, the efforts of groups like the Gift of the Givers charity—the organization that was working for Korkie’s release—make it difficult, if not impossible for the U.S. military to avoid operations that might interfere with a hostage’s release. Instead of castigating the United States for a rescue operation that went wrong, those who, even for altruistic reasons, conduct negotiations that aid the terrorists are ultimately to blame.
The war against Islamist terrorism has dragged on for more than a decade and no end is in sight. Part of the reason for that lies in the inherent difficulties in fighting a movement that can be an elusive if deadly target. Part of it also stems from foolish decisions by the Obama administration that weakened America’s position in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. But those problems notwithstanding, the president and his foreign-policy team cannot be credibly accused of indifference to the lives of Western hostages. Though the administration’s desire to abandon the Middle East and to move to détente with dangerous Iran is a colossal blunder, their commitment to fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda is clear. Those who will blame the president for the deaths of Somers and Korkie need to remember that it is the terrorists who bear all of the responsibility for what happened, not an administration that did the right thing and refused to pay ransoms.