By Donna Cole
Tuesday evening I read a story in the New York Times titled "Paying Ransoms, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror." I found the article to be shocking for several reasons, and I really wanted to write about the article for a reason that I think might have been lost on many who read it. I always look for a unique angle on stories, and I thought I had a rather good one. I'll discuss that angle later.
The first thing I want to discuss is something that as a media critic I cannot in good faith let go without being called out. On his WISN 1130 radio show Wednesday (7-30-14) host Mark Belling discussed this same story. Because I hadn't had the time to write about it yet, I was very interested to hear Belling's take because while I don't always agree with him, at times I do find his insights interesting and informative. Besides the story itself being shocking, I was quite shocked at how Belling grossly misrepresented the story. I know he was talking about the same story, but what he read, or claimed to have read, had the same title but was totally different than anything I read. I felt so strongly about this that I later listened to Belling's show podcast, hour 2-part 1, 7-30-14, and made a transcript of the segment in which he discussed this article. I don't know how long this link will work because I know Belling removes his podcasts after 24 hours. I downloaded and saved the podcast to my computer, but I am not sure how to link it to this post, but I do have it as evidence.
The following is my transcript of the show segment in question, it begins at about 11:25 of the podcast and lasts roughly 6 minutes, till the end of this podcast. Once you read Belling's take, I will point out what he got so badly wrong, and explain why it is important to know the truth. BELLING SEGMENT BEGINS;
"Here are words I thought I wouldn't be saying, there's an outstanding story in the New York Times! You realize what a rarity that is?! It's actually very good, you can find it online, 'Paying Ransoms, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror.'
-The story in the New York Times deals with the practice of Al Qaeda to kidnap European businessmen in the Middle East and demand ransom. It is apparently more common than has been reported because most of these deals by their requirement are kept private, they're Hush Hush."
-Al Qaeda grabs some prominent person, his family or the business pays a large ransom, in order to keep the person from getting killed, Al Qaeda pockets the money. The New York Times reports this has been consistent, and that it is rarely reported by governments because they do not want to acknowledge there is an ongoing practice of negotiating with terrorists."
-I have a comment on this. Every time someone is held hostage by a terror organization there is overwhelming public pressure to do something about it. The problem with that is it guarantees more people will be taken in the future. The New York Times story says that kidnapping is becoming one of the top revenue streams by Al Qaeda to fund their terror."
-In other words, they're in the business now of kidnapping. Kidnap, extortion, this is where they get their money. Some of their rich Saudi oil money has dried up so that they simply grab people. Well what do you want them to do, kill those people? The more times you pay ransom the more you merely guarantee people will be endangered."
-I think there is a basic rule you have to establish. If a terrorist organization kidnaps someone, that person unfortunately is on their own. Because there is a greater good that needs to be satisfied. That is we don't want to be vulnerable to these organizations doing it over and over and over. Every time you pay a ransom to Al Qaeda you reward them for the fact that they kidnapped in the first place. Oh, you wouldn't say that if it was your lover. No, I probably wouldn't. We all have situational ethics. But the entities that are making these decisions have to consider the greater good.
-Which is why, according to the New York Times one of things Al Qaeda is doing now is they don't go through the government. In the case of the lede* of their story, they kidnapped a German businessman, who do you think they contacted? The business. Why go through Germany? They might not pay. The business is gonna pay to get their executive back. And the big trick, charging just enough to bankroll your terrorism, but not so much that the business isn't going to pay. If Al Qaeda kidnapped me, how much do you think Clear Channel would pay to get me back? (Joking goes on a minute, then commentary continues).
-You get some of these big multinational companies, and they feel some sort of obligation because they send the people to go work in these countries that may be dangerous and therefore they feel an obligation to try to protect them."
END OF SEGMENT (*Note: The word lede, not lead, is "the lede is the first sentence or short portion of an article that gives
the gist of the story and contains the most important points readers
need to know." From the Grammarist.)
So, what did Belling get wrong about this story? Almost everything. Let's begin with just who is being kidnapped, quotes from the NY Times story;
"On Feb. 23, 2003, a group of four Swiss tourists, including two 19-year-old women, woke up in their sleeping bags in southern Algeria to the shouts of armed men."
"Over the coming weeks, another seven tour groups traveling in the same corner of the desert vanished. European governments scrambled to find their missing citizens."
"...a Swede living in Germany, from his 54 days as a hostage in 2003. He was on what he thought would be a four-week adventure vacation when he was kidnapped in the Algerian desert by jihadists..."
"Armed with a few hunting rifles and old AK-47s, the kidnappers succeeded in sweeping up dozens of tourists over several consecutive weeks, mostly from Germany, but also from Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. Though they planned the first few ambushes, they appear to have grabbed others by chance, like a pair of hapless 26-year-olds from Innsbruck, Austria, who were spotted because of the campfire they had lit to cook spaghetti."
"The cash filled three suitcases: 5 million euros.....The German official charged with delivering this cargo arrived here aboard a nearly empty military plane and was whisked away to a secret meeting with the president of Mali, who had offered Europe a face-saving solution to a vexing problem.....Officially, Germany had budgeted the money as humanitarian aid for the poor, landlocked nation of Mali.....In truth, all sides understood that the cash was bound for an obscure group of Islamic extremists who were holding 32 European hostages, according to six senior diplomats directly involved in the exchange....."
The last paragraph there is very important, because that is the "lede" of the story, slightly edited to keep on the point. The other quotes I used were to describe who these 32 European hostages were. They were all tourists. Not one mention of them being businessmen. The story continues with more facts about just who is kidnapped;
"Within a few years, there was a split within Al Qaeda, with the group’s affiliate in Iraq grabbing foreigners specifically to kill them.....In Algeria, the kidnappers of the European tourists followed a different path....As kidnapping revenue became their main lifeline, they honed and perfected the process.....By Feb. 2, 2011, when their lookouts in southern Algeria spotted a 53-year-old Italian tourist, Mariasandra Mariani, admiring the rolling dunes through a pair of binoculars......"
"....a commander holding two Canadian diplomats."
"In 2009, four tourists were returning to Niger from a music festival in Mali when kidnappers overtook their cars, shooting out their tires. The hostages included a German woman, a Swiss couple and a British man, Edwin Dyer, 61."
A few other hostages are mentioned in the story, but other than those two Canadian diplomats, it either does not say why they were there, or that they were tourists. In fact, by far, all the hostages mentioned are European tourists. There is no mention of businessmen in the article, and certainly no mention of something so specific as a "German businessman." There is no kidnapped German businessman in the lede of the story or anywhere else in it, I say this a second time to drive the point home and to "lead" into the next thing Mr. Belling got so badly wrong. That is who pays for the release of these hostages.
Belling said, "Al Qaeda grabs some prominent person, his family or the business pays a
large ransom, in order to keep the person from getting killed, Al Qaeda
pockets the money." That is also not true except for the fact Al Qaeda pockets the money. Nowhere in the story, besides not mentioning a "prominent" person, does it say any family or business pays the ransom. The NY Times story says repeatedly things like the following (as a matter of fact, who pays is one of the key elements of the story);
"While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year."
"These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, who funneled the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid..."
"The foreign ministries of Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland denied in emails or telephone interviews that they had paid the terrorists." (In reality they have, more on that next.)
"Only a handful of countries have resisted paying, led by the United States and Britain.....“The Europeans have a lot to answer for,” said Vicki Huddleston, the former United States deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, who was the ambassador to Mali in 2003 when Germany paid the first ransom. “It’s a completely two-faced policy. They pay ransoms and then deny any was paid.” She added, “The danger of this is not just that it grows the terrorist movement, but it makes all of our citizens vulnerable.”
"All over Europe, families rallied, pressuring governments to pay. Ms. Mariani was ultimately released, along with two Spanish hostages, for a ransom that a negotiator involved in her case said was close to €8 million."
"The Swiss and German nationals held alongside Mr. Dyer were released after a reported ransom of €8 million was paid, according to one of the Swiss negotiators who helped win their release. The same year, lawmakers in Bern, the Swiss capital, voted on a national budget that “suddenly had an extra line for humanitarian aid for Mali,” the official said."
"Negotiators believe that the Qaeda branches have now determined which governments pay."
"Western countries have signed numerous agreements calling for an end to ransom paying, including as recently as last year at a G8 summit, where some of the biggest ransom payers in Europe signed a declaration agreeing to stamp out the practice. Yet according to hostages released this year and veteran negotiators, governments in Europe — especially France, Spain and Switzerland — continue to be responsible for some of the largest payments, including a ransom of €30 million — about $40 million — paid last fall to free four Frenchmen held in Mali."
"The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, went on to describe how the money was transferred. European governments send an escort, he said, who travels with the money several hundred miles into the desert until the last safe outpost, usually leaving from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, or Niamey in Niger."
"The money is written off by European governments as an aid payment, or else delivered through intermediaries, like the French nuclear giant Areva, a state-controlled company that a senior negotiator said paid €12.5 million in 2011 and €30 million in 2013 to free five French citizens. (A spokesman for Areva denied in an email that a ransom had been paid.)"
As you can see in these quotes from the article, they all mention the government as the ones who are paying the ransoms. I did include the last paragraph to show that it is mentioned, this one time, in the story that the French used a state owned company as a middleman (this was near the end of the story as well, not in the lede), but in reality, all of the ransom money is coming from these various European governments. And it certainly is not how Belling described it. There is no "big trick" either, as in not asking for too much money. They get as much as they can, and the article makes this clear.
Other problems I have with Belling's "flawed analysis" of this article is that he states these kidnappings are happening in the Middle East. The article states; "The bulk of the kidnappings-for-ransom carried out in Al Qaeda’s name have occurred in Africa, and more recently in Syria and Yemen." And the story reflects this fact, the majority of the article is about Al Qaeda's activities in Africa.
Belling also says the terrorists go to the businesses for the ransom money, not the government. I think I have clearly established that the article says no such thing. It states that the terrorists do contact the governments, through various methods, and negotiate through diplomatic type channels. One time, the terrorists make contact by calling the Arab news network Al Jazeera. Another time, they leave a written message under a rock. Regardless, they are contacting governments and/or diplomats not businesses.
I don't know why Belling so badly misrepresented this article, he had no reason to that I can think of. Clearly he didn't read it, I don't even think he breezed it. It would seem to me he read the headline and totally invented the story. I admit, I read dozens of stories everyday, perhaps hundreds, and I do not read all of those thoroughly, but the ones I write about, I do read thoroughly. If I am going to publicly comment on a story, then I want to have my facts straight.
Was Belling just lazy, and figured no one would call him on it? I don't know, he has the answer to that question. I really do not want to believe that Belling is just so lazy he winged it and thought he could get away with it. I do know that Belling sometimes gets facts wrong, but usually it's a small thing (minor detail or how he might have read something and interpreted it differently than I did) I catch here or there, and I let it go. But, he so badly butchered this article, I couldn't let it slide. Other times Belling is wrong it's on something that is subjective, so it's hard to say he is just plain wrong verses just a matter of opinion (perhaps his is a poorly informed opinion on some things). In this case, he is plain wrong. No two ways about it.
The reason it is important to get the facts right about this particular article is exactly some of the facts Belling screwed up. It is a BIG DEAL that European nations are paying these ransoms, not only funding Al Qaeda but encouraging them to keep doing it. That was a point Belling made, but he so badly made it that I give him no credit for it. One could almost forgive a company for paying to release an employee they put into harms way, but that is not the case in this article.
These European governments are allowing their citizens to travel to these countries, for seemingly harmless tourism, knowing there is not only a chance to be kidnapped, but because they have paid locals off before, there is an even greater chance they will be taken. Yet, they still allow them to go there, thus perpetuating the cycle. Do these governments not see this? Why don't they stop their people from going to these places? Do the citizens know all this, and go because they figure the government will bail them out, with millions of dollars (Euros)? These are important questions that Belling's take on the story totally glossed over because he missed, or disregarded, the basic facts.
I'm sorry I spent so much time on Belling, and I am glad if you are still with me here reading this. But, I hope you understand I had no choice in the matter, I could not sleep well if I didn't ring the bell on this. Now, if you will allow me, since you are already here this far along, I would like to take a brief time to make the point I had originally wanted to make about this story. Remember, my unique angle?
We have been told by liberals, Democrats, the media, President Obama and his cabinet members, that Al Qaeda is on the run. That they are loosely affiliated, or just groups who claim the mantle of Al Qaeda with no real connection. We are told that Al Qaeda is "decentralized" with no real command structure. When The New York Times published their magazine piece that was supposed to answer every question about Benghazi and put to bed any discussion about it, there was no Al Qaeda involved, or even any Al Qaeda in Libya. Just guys saying they are Al Qaeda to get street cred, but no real relationship because there is no real Al Qaeda. Just a few old guys still alive in the mountains of Pakistan who make videos or audio recordings, giving non specific orders like, "Kill Americans."
That is what we have been told to believe, but surprisingly this New York Times' story, and to their credit, paints a bit of a different picture. I honestly believe that either they (the Times' editors) didn't see this connection, or thought that anyone else would make it. I lean to the former because I think they missed it too. It's easier to see when these facts are isolated. Just read the following quotes from the story, and see if you can put together a picture. From The NY Times piece;
"The suitcases were loaded onto pickup trucks and driven hundreds of miles north into the Sahara, where the bearded fighters, who would soon become an official arm of Al Qaeda..."
"Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for Al Qaeda, bankrolling its operations across the globe."
"The inner workings of the kidnapping business were also revealed in thousands of pages of internal Qaeda documents found by this reporter while on assignment for The Associated Press in northern Mali last year."
"...counterterrorism officials now believe the group finances the bulk of its recruitment, training and arms purchases from ransoms paid to free Europeans....Put more bluntly, Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of Al Qaeda."
"The stream of income generated is so significant that internal documents show that as long as five years ago, Al Qaeda’s central command in Pakistan was overseeing negotiations for hostages grabbed as far afield as Africa. Moreover, the accounts of survivors held thousands of miles apart show that the three main affiliates of the terrorist group — Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in northern Africa; Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen; and the Shabab, in Somalia — are coordinating their efforts and abiding by a common kidnapping protocol."
"To minimize the risk to their fighters, the terror affiliates have outsourced the seizing of hostages to criminal groups who work on commission. Negotiators take a reported 10 percent of the ransom, creating an incentive on both sides of the Mediterranean to increase the overall payout..."
"The exploits of the band of fighters in the Sahara did not go unnoticed....A year later, in 2004, a Qaeda operative, Abdelaziz al-Muqrin, published a how-to guide to kidnapping, in which he highlighted the successful ransom negotiation of “our brothers in Algeria.”
"They used the €5 million as the seed money for their movement, recruiting and training fighters who staged a series of devastating attacks. They grew into a regional force and were accepted as an official branch of the Qaeda network, which baptized them Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb...."
"The bulk of the kidnappings-for-ransom carried out in Al Qaeda’s name have occurred in Africa, and more recently in Syria and Yemen. These regions are thousands of miles from the terror network’s central command in Pakistan."
"In a letter discovered by this reporter in buildings abandoned by the jihadists in Mali last year, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb blamed the commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, for securing only the “meager sum” of €700,000 — around $1 million — saying the low amount was a result of his unwillingness to follow the instructions of the group’s leadership in Pakistan."
"In his last broadcast before his death in 2011, Osama bin Laden spoke at length about the case of four French citizens held by Al Qaeda in Mali, making clear that he was keeping close tabs on individual kidnappings."
"Hostages held as recently as last year in Yemen say it was clear the negotiations were being handled by a distant leadership....Atte and Leila Kaleva, a Finnish couple held for five months by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2013, deduced this from the voluminous correspondence they saw being delivered to their captors...“There were lots of letters back and forth,” Mr. Kaleva said. “It was clear that they had a hierarchy, and they were consulting their leaders about what to do with us.”
So, what does that sound like to you, a decentralized bunch of goofs running around doing their own thing, simply inspired by some videos on the internet? Or, a highly structured organization with centralized command and control?
While I know the answer, and I hope you do too, I would like to end with this. The left cannot have it both ways, when it fits their narrative of the moment. They can't one day be allowed to say it was just a bunch of unorganized goofs running around who pulled off the Benghazi attack, then turn around and say it's this thing that sounds as organized as something between the mafia of old and a modern nation state's disciplined military. They have to choose which one it is, and stick with it. It is on conservatives to call them on this, and not allow liberals to create their own Al Qaeda du jour.