Terrorists Kidnappings: to pay or not to pay?

Last month, 4 Malaysian citizens were kidnapped by gunmen from a militant group known as Abu-Sayyaf on 1st April. They demanded a ransom of RM 30 million ringgit, which had to be paid by 30th April. As of 30th April, the four abducted Malaysians are not on the Armed Forces of Philippines’ list of foreign hostages held by Abu-Sayyaf, which currently includes 1 Dutch man, 1 Canadian, 1 Norwegian, and 10 Indonesians.

This was the talk of the town (or the talk of the state, if you have been following social media).

This incident was exacerbated by the fact that the state election of Sarawak is just around the corner, and that all the four hostages are from the town of Sibu, Sarawak. Other than the policies proposed being fiercely debated, the fate of the hostages was highlighted and discussed every single day.

All of a sudden, it seemed that the politicians who could propose a sound solution to ensure the safety of the hostages was highly likely to win, regardless of his or her political merits. During the ongoing campaigning period, the family members of the hostages attended almost every political talk to raise funds. They went onto the stage, kneeled to the audience and begged for people to save the hostages by means of donation.

Is this an election that we want? While it is highly likely that certain parties have hijacked the issue, taking advantage of the sympathy of Malaysian citizens, to advance their own agenda, let us put this aside for one moment and focus our efforts on thinking about what is the best strategy to deal with the cold-blooded terrorists. I shall refrain from commenting too much on politics and/or politicians in this article.



This is not the first time that it has happened, nor is this the first time this has occurred in recent years either. Most of us are probably thinking along these lines right now:

“Why does the issue persist? Has anything been done?”

“If so, why was it not effective? If not, is there anything else that can be done?”

“How can we do our part to fix the mess?”

“What are we, as responsible, patriotic citizens, supposed to do to save our brothers and sisters, and to protect our sovereignty?”


Last I remember, the saying goes like this:

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even if you have a hundred battles.

 – The Art of War, Sun Tzu

Perhaps by putting ourselves in the shoes of our common enemies, we can gain some important insights.

The kidnapping of hostages is an effort by the terrorists, with the potential reward of ransom. As powerful as the terrorists may be, there are certain limits to what they can do.

For example, we can consider the frequency and volume of kidnapping. Taking in dozens of hostages definitely cannot be done every other day. They are unable to do so, for at least two reasons.

One, if everyone is being kidnapped, who is there to pay the ransom? There must be some people being left to carry out economically productive activities, so that the practice is sustainable. If people do not work and earn money, the demand for ransom cannot be met at all. They have to strike a balance somewhere.

Secondly, they have limited resources. Kidnapping requires careful planning and execution, in addition to personnel equipped with armaments. The former takes time, the latter costs money. They do not own all the time and money in the world. They obviously do not have more than 24 hours per day per person. They will not be kidnapping people if they do have unlimited supply of time and money.

The second reason stated above is what we go through every day. We face the constraints of resources, therefore everything has a cost, be it implicit (say, opportunity cost) or explicit. For the terrorists, the costs committed by the act of kidnapping must be offset by the benefits, or it will simply be an unprofitable operation.

In order to stop the kidnapping of hostages, it is pretty straightforward – render their operation unprofitable. Note that this does not directly translate into not paying ransom at all. Most of the people will tell you it is the same, but it is not. We do have at least an alternative, for which I will elaborate on, later on.

When the ransom is not paid, it means that the terrorists are wasting time and money for nothing. We are effectively depriving them of their paychecks, and what sounds sweeter than that? The downside, however, is the casualties incurred.

This can be improvised. A huge step towards the utopian setting without terrorists, to prevent any kidnapping from happening in the first place, is for a state to issue an official statement that no negotiation with terrorists will take place, and that no ransom will be paid. This is in line what most of the states say, but not necessarily what they do.

The inconsistency shown by the states is due to the heavy political pressure to pay the ransom in order to please the voters. This can be worsened by extremely short-sighted voters who care only for their family members, but refuse to solve the fundamental issue once and for all.

It initially seems like an attractive, or even flawless, strategy: states issue public statements that no ransom will ever be paid, but pay the ransom after citizenshave been kidnapped. Apparently, it will curb the practice of kidnapping and satisfy the voters simultaneously.

The terrorists, however, do not care for the states’ official statements. Whether the ransom will be paid depends entirely on the state’s actions, and not their words. No one is going to trust a liar, not even the terrorists. If the terrorists know that the states are lying, or have been lying, kidnapping will still take place, as ransom will be paid anyway.

Therefore, the ideal way to deal with terrorists, is to never make the ransom payment – not even the slightest thought of it. However, the terrorists do not know which states are honest, and which ones are lying. Moreover, people change over time. The succeeding politicians are not bound to act in the same way as their predecessors as well. It is inevitable that kidnapping will happen every once in a while, even though the states seem committed in combating terrorism. The most the states can do, is to make public their intentions not to surrender to the demands of the terrorists, and commit to it.

What is the alternative that will render the kidnapping operation unprofitable then? Military intervention. Yes, I know it involves lives. I am not writing this without a heavy heart.

Think about it, in addition to making kidnapping unprofitable by not paying them, why not take it a step further by making them pay instead? Not in money, I am talking about paying in blood. It implies a cost for them, in monetary terms as well. Terrorists do not appear out of nowhere, the cost of recruitment and training, besides the manpower needed in their operations can very much be monetized. I highly doubt that the terrorists will not think twice before kidnapping anyone, if they are bound to lose some of their members for every operation carried out.

If the state is ever going to spend money to fight terrorism, spend it in a way not to pay the terrorists, but for them to pay with their lives; not spend it to sustain the development of terrorism. It has to be spent on military expenditure, never to pay ransom, it should never be an option.

Terrorism strikes fear into each and every one of us. It is the same fear that gave them the power to further terrorize us. Much like Freddy Krueger, eh?

We shall not fear.

We shall not surrender.

We shall show them our resolution.

We shall stand united for our nation.

We shall show them the world has no place for them.

We shall show them the only place they belong, is six feet underground.
Allow me to end this with a message to the family members of the hostages:

Refusing to pay the ransom, and ending up with the hostages being killed, is an unpleasant fact. Yet, it is necessary. I am a mere human being made of blood and flesh, I have emotions, and I will get saddened too.


The executions take place not because that the ransom is not paid, however the terrorists would like you to believe it. They want you to blame your fellow citizens, your state, your government, your chancellor/ president/ prime minister; so that they can profit. The hostages are as good as dead the moment they are captured.


By Terence Then


Header image: Canadians Robert Hall and John Ridsdel and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad (L-R) reportedly appeared in a video pleading for their governments to pay the ransom set by the Abu Sayyaf group. Source: CNNPhilippines.com

"Zeal without knowledge is fire without light." - Thomas Fuller, 17th century historian

1 Comment

  • June 17, 2016


    If Anything, Military intervention does not minimize terrorism. That just fuels their hatred and actions. Investing more money to counter terrorism also requires an opportunity cost. What will that be? Is it worth it? Hmm