Could ISIS exist without Islam?

Mogahed said it’s “kind of an obvious point” that the group uses Islamic texts to justify its brutality. “But I want to answer a slightly different question, which is: If Islam did not exist … would a group like ISIS, with all the other realities as they are, exist today and do the same things?”
“My answer to that hypothetical question is a resounding yes.” Discussing global terrorism at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Mogahed, who formerly led research on Muslims with the polling organization Gallup, said that extremist groups all over the world commit the same kinds of violence using what she called “the local social currency” to justify it. “That is sometimes Christianity. That is sometimes Judaism. That is sometimes Buddhism. And it is sometimes secular ideologies. So a world without Islam would still have a group like ISIS—they would just be called something else that may be less catchy.”

Could ISIS exist without Islam? Not an area I know much about, but I do know people often read into texts what they want to.

Should the U.S. government pay ransoms for journalists?

And then, earlier this year, some disappeared journalists began to emerge. Two Spanish journalists were released in March. The following month, four French journalists emerged from captivity. It was widely assumed that ISIS had demanded ransom, and that the European governments had agreed to pay. European governments generally agree to make, or facilitate, ransom payments, which are believed to have run as high as $10 million.

Neither the United States nor Britain makes payments of this sort, and sharply criticize European governments for doing so. But perhaps that's why no American or British journalists have been freed during this period. In August, of course, the United States began bombing IS positions in Iraq, further complicating any official attempts -- if they were made at all -- to free Foley and Sotloff. They were thus available to serve as punishment, and as blackmail.

This raises an agonizing question: Should states pay ransom to kidnappers? If you are a friend or loved one of the victim, the answer is obviously yes. But even a more remote observer could cite the moral argument that the obligation to treat people as ends rather than means -- what Kant calls the "categorical imperative" -- forbids one to place the life of the abductee in a balance with abstract goods, like "sending a message" that kidnapping doesn't pay. In any case, the consequences of capitulation are remote and hypothetical; the life is terribly real. Israel, the most hard-nosed of democracies, has been prepared to pay a terrible price to retrieve its captured soldiers; in 2011, the state handed over 1027 prisoners, a quarter of them serving life terms, in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Israelis understand that by doing so they may encourage further kidnapping, and thus further endanger their own security; it is a price they are prepared to pay.

More over at Foreign Policy. Not an easy decision to make, even if, as the article notes, "the consequences of capitulating to terrorist kidnappers are ruinous” (incentives matter, and the article points a NYTimes investigation that showed how Al Qaeda was financing its operations by kidnapping and then ransoming citizens to European countries).

This piece opened my eyes. American TV and movies have given me cultural blinders; in TV shows and movies, the standard operating procedure of the U.S. government was to never negotiate with terrorists, and I assumed that was the same everywhere.

More detail from the NYTimes piece:

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.

In news releases and statements, the United States Treasury Department has cited ransom amounts that, taken together, put the total at around $165 million over the same period.

These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, who funneled the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid, according to interviews conducted for this article with former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. 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.

With this level of money, the kidnapping business has grown in sophistication.

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, according to former hostages and senior counterterrorism officials.

Their business plan includes a step-by-step process for negotiating, starting with long periods of silence aimed at creating panic back home. Hostages are then shown on videos begging their government to negotiate.

Although the kidnappers threaten to kill their victims, a review of the known cases revealed that only a small percentage of hostages held by Qaeda affiliates have been executed in the past five years, a marked turnaround from a decade ago, when videos showing beheadings of foreigners held by the group’s franchise in Iraq would regularly turn up online. Now the group has realized it can advance the cause of jihad by keeping hostages alive and trading them for prisoners and suitcases of cash.

Incentives, as expected, seem to work. The piece notes that the two countries that don't negotiate, the U.K. and the U.S., have seen many fewer citizens kidnapped these past five years than countries that are known to pay ransoms.