The Obama Administration is expected to announce on Wednesday that families of hostages can now pay ransoms without fearing federal prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 2339B. Section 2339B provides that “whoever knowingly provides material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both, and if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life.” Although the Justice Department has not utilized this statute to prosecute families seeking to pay ransoms for their loved ones, the issue has received scrutiny since last September when the parents of James Foley accused the Obama administration of threatening criminal prosecution if they began taking steps to pay a ransom for their son who was being held by ISIS.
In addition to allowing families to pay ransoms, the United States will also create a fusion center. This center will be located at the FBI and will coordinate the efforts of multiple federal agencies to coordinate future recovery efforts. The center will also have a team that will maintain contact with families in order to provide more open communication on the efforts to free hostages. This should allow families to have increase transparency on the recovery effort.
These changes are only a small shift in U.S. policy regarding ransoms. The United States will still embrace a “no concessions policy,” whereby the U.S. Government will not pay ransoms. This policy is based on the theory that paying ransoms would encourage terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, to target Americans. While some countries like Great Britain also do not pay ransoms, other countries, such as Germany and Spain, do pay ransoms to recover hostages. There have been calls that countries that do pay ransoms have helped fund terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and ISIS. If the United States were to pay ransoms, social media savvy groups like ISIS would inevitably use such a payment as propaganda material. But not paying the ransom does not seem to be a deterrent to groups kidnapping American citizens and killing those hostages in brutal propaganda videos.
Families of hostages will still face large challenges even with the new policy shift. When James Foley was a hostage, ISIS demanded $132 million for a ransom. Even if Foley’s family was allowed to try to raise the ransom, such a large amount may have been an insurmountable fiscal challenge. Beyond the financial burden of raising the ransom money, families will need to navigate the complex logistical arena of orchestrating the payment. It is yet to be determined what role the new fusion center will play in assisting families paying ransoms while still embracing the U.S. no concession policy. While there are many details that will need to be ironed out, this change in policy shift is a welcomed change for families who have loved one in hostage situations.