Funding Terrorism: The Problem of Ransom Payments

34 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2016 Last revised: 31 May 2017

See all articles by Yvonne Dutton

Yvonne Dutton

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Date Written: December 1, 2015


Concerns about the increased role ransoms play in funding terrorism have led to calls for a universal policy banning ransom payments to terrorists. In June 2013, the G8 leaders issued a communiqué in which they recognized that ransom payments to terrorists helps to strengthen the organization and fund future incidents of kidnapping for ransom. The G8 leaders accordingly “welcome[d] efforts to prevent kidnapping and to secure the safe release of hostages without ransom payments.” In January 2014, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a Resolution expressing concern about the increase in terrorist kidnappings for ransom and that the payments fund future hostage-takings. It further called on states to prevent terrorists from benefiting from ransom payments and to work with the private sector so that they would respond to kidnappings without paying ransoms. Additional Security Council Resolutions referencing a ransom ban have followed. What, though, is the import of these recent measures? Analysis of the text of the communiqué and the resolutions shows that they do not create clear, binding, and enforceable obligations on states to refuse to pay ransoms to terrorists. This means that there is also reason to expect that states that have previously acceded to terrorist ransom demands or permitted their citizens to pay ransoms to terrorists will not change their behavior. Thus, these recent measures present a puzzle: namely, if they are not obligatory and backed by enforcement mechanisms to hold states accountable, why were they adopted? This Article draws on the literature about norm influence to suggest an answer: adopting these measures has the potential to impact behavior in a meaningful and constructive way in the future. In fact, this Article suggests that the only realistic avenue to produce change in this context is through persuasion, as opposed to force. Consider the ethical dilemma. Even if a state is comfortable enforcing its own “no concessions” policies, why would it want to assume the ethical burden of forcing another state to sacrifice the lives of its citizens? States may feel similarly as regards the private sector: while they may not want the private sector to pay ransoms, punishing individuals who pay under duress for the safe return of their loved ones is not generally consistent with the criminal law: it seems ethically and morally wrong. Urging states and citizens to refuse to pay ransoms because doing so serves the greater goals of depriving terrorists of funding and the motivation for future kidnappings is a different matter. When one “urges,” as opposed to “forces,” one does not assume the ultimate decision of whether to pay or not.

Suggested Citation

Dutton, Yvonne, Funding Terrorism: The Problem of Ransom Payments (December 1, 2015). San Diego Law Review, Vol. 53, pp. 335-367, 2016; Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Research Paper No. 2016-20. Available at SSRN:

Yvonne Dutton (Contact Author)

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law ( email )

530 West New York Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202
United States

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