Kidnapping, Drug and Refugee Trafficking Behind the Financing of ISIS (1/2)

Author and journalist Loretta Napoleoni discusses how jihadists make enormous amounts of money by taking freelancing journalists and aspiring aid workers hostage

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. If you wonder how the Islamic State gets the money to pay for its wars against the imperial powers, like that of the United States, Russia and Europe, we may have some of the answers for you today. The ransom paid for kidnappings by ISIS amount to almost $125 million, says the New York Times. Now, combine that activity with refugee smuggling and drug trafficking, and that amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars a year for ISIS. 1.8 million refugees crossed the EU in 2015. The number is expected to rise in 2016. This is the largest movement of people since World War II.

When I was in Lesbos, Greece, last summer, I spoke with a number of refugees who had paid multiple times to smugglers to cross the Mediterranean where the strait is just 5 kilometers between Turkey and Greece.

In our studio today, we are joined by Loretta Napoleoni, the author of Merchants of Men: How Jihadists and ISIS Turned Kidnapping and Refugee Trafficking into a Multi-Billion Dollar Business. Much of that money is going to ISIS. Loretta, thank you so much for joining us today.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Thank you for inviting me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Loretta, I guess a big question in everyone’s mind is if there’s kidnapping and ISIS is getting money by way of ransom, who’s paying?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: The governments, of course. All the people that were released by… the hostages that were released by ISIS were released to governments who had agreed to pay a ransom — apart from one, this was the guy from Denmark. The Danish government refused, of course, to pay any ransom. That’s its policy. But it does allow families or other organizations to raise the money for the ransom. In the case of Daniel Rye, an organization, which is a security organization, actually helped the family to raise the money and also provided the negotiator to get him out.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, when you watch prime time soap operas on US television, you often find the position of these shows is that no state actually pays ransom, especially not to terrorists, and like that of ISIS. And that’s obviously mythology, because they’re making a lot of money off of the kidnappings. Give us a sense of what some of the negotiators are saying to you, because you spoke to a lot of the negotiators, the families, people who were actually held as kidnapped people waiting for ransom. What are they saying?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, the negotiators will tell you, for example, that it’s much better if governments do not get involved. And that’s, to a certain extent, also the criticism that most families put forth is the fact that government are by nature bureaucratic, so it takes a long time to get the negotiation going, it takes a long time to get the agreement, while in the case of kidnapping, speed is key. You can generally get somebody out within in a week for a fraction — an absolute fraction — of the money, that then you pay if this person stays in for a long time. And it’s very easy to understand, because it costs money to keep somebody prisoner. So, the longer you wait, the higher is the price.

SHARMINI PERIES: How do the mechanics of that — how are the negotiations done? Who communicates with whom, and who is at each end?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, generally, what happens is that the organization that kidnaps… I mean, number one, most of the… all the people that were kidnapped by the Islamic State were not kidnapped directly by the Islamic State. They were kidnapped by a group that specializes in kidnapping, one or another — there are so many in Syria — and then they get the hostage and they try to get money from the families. If they don’t get the money within a week, 10 days, then they sell the hostage to the big players, and the two big players in Syria — at that time, so we’re talking about 2012 to 2014, 2015 — were the Islamic State and Al-Nusra. Those were the organizations that actually had the infrastructure to carry out the negotiations — because you have to be able to negotiate — and number two, they also have the money and the infrastructure to keep the prisoner for a long time.

So what happens is the group kidnaps somebody, uses generally the address book of the hostage to find somebody that can be an intermediary, so a person that can talk to the family or to the government. And then at that point, if the negotiation can be done within a week, you can get people out. But that never happens, because of course people always go to the embassy, and then the embassy calls the government, and the government calls the crisis unit, and then these people sit on the issue for a long time. The Italians, for example, in 2012, they had 19 cases — 19 cases — of kidnapping. They don’t even have the personnel to handle it quickly. Now, if you go privately — and I have a few stories like that in the book — then generally you’re out within 10 days.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, the sooner you negotiate in that initial window when they contact you, the more likely that they will be released and they will be able to have the transaction.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Families don’t know. Families do not know what to do.

SHARMINI PERIES: They’re scared, obviously.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Yeah, they’re scared, but also they don’t know. So, if a member of your family gets kidnapped, you don’t know who to call to go privately. What would you do? Of course, you go to the FBI — because the FBI in the United States is the one who handles kidnapping — and then the FBI starts the process of deciding who is in charge, depending on where you’re kidnapped, by whom.

SHARMINI PERIES: And they’re the least likely to actually usher you through the process and pay the ransom that they’re requesting.

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Yes. Absolutely, yes. So, the best way — that’s what a negotiator will tell you, and also family — is actually to use the professionals, so to use private companies. That also keeps the ransom down, because families cannot afford the same amount of ransom their government can. I mean, the Italian government paid in the beginning of 2015 for the release of two young Italians, 13 million euros. And it was actually the former Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, who now is the new Prime Minister, who agreed to that payment — 13 million euros, of which 2 disappeared in the movement of the money from Italy to, yes, to Turkey, and 5 were pocketed by the so-called captain. We don’t even know exactly what the definition of the group who had kidnapped them.

SHARMINI PERIES: In these scenarios — we’re talking about kidnapping still — who is most vulnerable?

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, of course, the hostages are the most vulnerable of them all, because the hostage is there, is generally treated very badly the longer…

SHARMINI PERIES: Who becomes hostages? I mean, we’re talking about journalists here, people who are aid workers…

LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Oh, well, generally, I would say that 70% of the cases are either freelancers or aid workers or aspiring aid workers. So not professional aid workers. Professional aid workers are more rare because they are protected, because they know what the risks are, but in the case of freelancers or aspiring aid workers, they don’t know, so they are easy prey.

And then you have also tourists, people go on holiday places that they don’t know are dangerous, because you have no idea how dangerous the world has become since the fall of the Berlin Wall. You think you’re going on holiday in Northern Kenya, it’s actually safe. You can’t imagine the al-Shabaab and all the other groups which are more or less linked to the piracy or linked to this dark economy of the failed states, are actually present in Northern Kenya.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Loretta. Let’s take up the more complex issues of what happens when you have kidnappings combined with drug trafficking and, of course, how all of this transpires with the new refugee crisis, as well. Join me again for Part 2. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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