The horrors of videotaped beheadings of foreign hostages in Iraq appear to be paving the way to the next stage of the racket, exorbitant ransom demands.
Large sums of money have begun to be paid under the counter to save hostages’ lives.
Even larger sums are being handed over to terrorist networks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia to make it worth their while to give up the practice of capturing foreigners and holding their lives to ransom. The extortion is now so blatant that DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources in Riyadh, Beirut, Baghdad, Amman, Kuwait and Damascus say local intelligence officials do not bother to hide the payoffs.
British prime minister Tony Blair may protest night and day that he will never bow to terrorists or directly negotiate with them – even for the life of the British hostage in Iraq Kenneth Bigley, and even though his two American co-workers were beheaded on camera after the three were kidnapped in Baghdad on September 16. But our sources report common knowledge around Middle Eastern capitals, especially Baghdad and Kuwait, that negotiators have reached the haggling stage on the size of the ransom. Bigley was on the point of being released last weekend but for a last-minute falling-out on the final amount.
The general estimate is that his freedom will cost at least $2 million.
His brother has been able to collect the cash from unknown sources. In any case, the benefactors will be reimbursed – ever so quietly – by the British government.
Two French journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, kidnapped earlier, on August 28, along with their Syrian driver, by the Islamic Army of Iraq, are also about to go free.
They were to be taken to Syria and released earlier this week after a sizeable sum was handed over. Since Paris could not be seen paying a ransom to al Qaeda – the journalists were abducted by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi‘s men – the hostages were “transferred” to another guerrilla group, which charged a kickback for its trouble. The handover, however, was delayed by a US air strike on the convoy before it entered Syria (See HOT POINTS, “Chirac Plants Hurdle on US Road to Fallujah).
Now the abductors want the ransom to be renegotiated and include “danger money” for the heightened risk of another US bombardment. It means starting again from scratch with a new time and place for the two French journalists and the payoff to be handed over.
There were also complications in the case of the two Italian hostages, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, who went free last week. Predicting their release, a Kuwaiti newspaper claimed that their captors had initially demanded $5 million to free the girls, settling in the end for $1 million.
“A cleric mediated to reduce the ransom,” said Ali el-Roz, managing editor of al-Rai al-Aam. “The cleric reproved the hostage takers when they demanded $5m and told them they must not dictate terms but accept conditions imposed on them.”
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi made a grand show of denying the Kuwait report. But Gustavo Selva, chairman of the Italian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, gave the game away. “The girls’ lives were the most important thing,” Selva told Frances’ RTL radio. “In principle, we must not give in to blackmail but this time we had to, although it’s a dangerous path to take because, obviously, it will encourage hostages-taking, whether for political or criminal motives.”
Counter-terrorism experts, detecting an ascending ransom scale, estimate that the price tags for the lives of the British and French hostages will go higher than the $1 million believed paid out for the two Simonas.
A senior official in a Gulf emirate, who spoke with DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, reports that, in Saudi Arabia, crackdowns against terrorists have been replaced in the last few months with extravagant payoffs of tens of millions of dollars to al Qaeda network chiefs to halt attacks. The fundamentalist zealots have in a word developed their own brand of protection racket. Small fortunes also pass from the royal coffers to the families of al Qaeda operatives, severance pay for laying down their arms, against guarantees from their kin of their reintegration in family life and non-return to the terror trade.
These payments are dubbed in the Gulf “al Qaeda’s gold mine.”
It is because of these rich payoffs that terrorist attacks have pretty well tapered off in Saudi Arabia.
So far, Washington has refused to ransom American hostages from terrorists. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism and intelligence sources believe the Americans will soon follow Saudi Arabia’s lead and start forking out the cash in Iraq’s Sunni triangle, albeit with a subtle difference: Baath party terrorist chiefs will be handsomely rewarded for chasing out or killing al Qaeda operatives on their turf. All the same, this will be a red line crossed by the US in the Middle East and its global war against terror.
In the short term, these ill-gotten revenues may scotch the vicious practice of kidnapping foreigners in Iraq. But they also provide an incentive. The terrorists know that when they run out of funds, they can always raise more by fresh abductions of foreigners for ransom. In the meantime, they have laid hands on big bucks to purchase weapons and explosives to sustain continuing violence.