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Secrets, hostages, and ransoms: British kidnap policy in historical perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 April 2018

Richard J. Aldrich
Professor of International Security, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick
Lewis Herrington
University Teaching Fellow, Loughborough University London


Britain has long taken a firm public line against terrorist ransom, insisting that yielding to terrorist demands only encourages further acts of intimidation and kidnapping. Hitherto, academic research has tended to take these assertions of piety at face value. This article uses a historical approach to show that the British position has shifted over time and was often more complex and pragmatic. Indeed, Britain’s position with regard to kidnap and ransom insurance has, until quite recently, been rather ambiguous. We use the British case to suggest that, rather than dividing states into groups that make concessions and those that do not, it is perhaps better to recognise there is often a broad spectrum of positions, sometimes held by different parts of the same government, together with the private security companies that move in the shadows on their behalf. One of the few things that unites them is a tendency to dissemble and this presents some intriguing methods problems for researchers.

Research Article
© British International Studies Association 2018 

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1 Erika Solomon, ‘The $1bn hostage deal that enraged Qatar’s Gulf rivals’, Financial Times (5 June 2017).

2 Extended studies of this subject are rare, but see, Auerbach, Ann, Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnapping (New York: Henry Holt, 1998)Google Scholar; Baumann, Carol Edler, The Diplomatic Kidnappings: A Revolutionary Tactic of Urban Terrorism (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Briggs, Rachel, The Kidnapping Business (London: The Foreign Policy Centre, 2001)Google Scholar; Griffiths, John, Hostage: The History, Facts & Reasoning Behind Hostage Taking (London: Andre Deutch, 2003)Google Scholar; Faure, Guy and Zartman, William (eds), Negotiating with Terrorists: Strategy, Tactics, and Politics (London: Routledge 2010)Google Scholar.

3 Andy Whitaker, ‘The family that fought to the end for their man’, The Independent (9 October 2004).

4 Hostage research has tended to focus more on terrorist behaviour than upon state responses: Forest, J. J. F., ‘Global trends in kidnapping by terrorist groups’, Global Change, Peace & Security, 24:3 (2012), pp. 311330 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Forest, J. J. F., ‘Kidnapping by terrorist groups, 1970–2010: Is ideological orientation relevant?’, Crime & Delinquency, 58:5 (2012), pp. 769797 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sandler, T. and Gaibulloev, K., ‘Hostage taking: Determinants of terrorist logistical and negotiation success’, Journal of Peace Research, 46:5 (2009), pp. 739756 Google Scholar; Wilson, Margaret, ‘Towards a model of terrorist behaviour in hostage taking incidents’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 44:4 (2000), pp. 403424 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Yun, Minwoo and Roth, Mitchell, ‘Terrorist hostage-taking and kidnapping: Using script theory to predict the fate of a hostage’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 31:8 (2008), pp. 736748 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Sophie Arie, ‘Italian aid workers freed in Iraq’, Guardian (29 September 2004); David Wood, ‘France did not pay ransom for hostages’ release’, Guardian (22 December 2004).

6 ‘Security Council Adopts Resolution 2133 (2014), Calling Upon States to Keep Ransom Payments, Political Concessions From Benefiting Terrorist | Meetings Coverage And Press Releases’, Un.Org (2016), available at: {} accessed 21 May 2017.

7 Rukmini Callimachi, ‘Paying ransoms, Europe bankrolls Qaeda terror’, New York Times (29 July 2014); Kashmira Gander, ‘Isis hostage threat: Which countries pay ransoms to release their citizens?’, The Independent (3 September 2014).

8 ‘How Four Men Survived as Hostages of IS’, BBC News (20 April 2016), available at: {} accessed 19 May 2017.

9 Ibid.

10 ‘France Denies It Paid Ransom for Syria Reporters’, Reuters (26 April 2016), available at: {} accessed 2 May 2017.

11 Nick Squires, ‘Furious row in Italy over “ransom” for aid workers held in Syria’, Telegraph (16 January 2015).

12 Ewen MacAskill, Seumas Milne, and Clayton Swisher, ‘Italian intelligence lied about hostage rescue to hide ransom payment’, Guardian (8 October 2015).

13 Drakos, Konstantinos and Gofas, Andreas, ‘The devil you know but are afraid to face: Underreporting bias and its distorting effects on the study of terrorism’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50:5 (2006), pp. 714735 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Silke, Andrew, ‘The devil you know: Continuing problems with research on terrorism’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 13:4 (2001), pp. 114 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Briggs sums this public position up well: ‘The UK government has developed a simple approach: no substantive concessions’ together with a commitment ‘not to be held to ransom by terrorists’. Briggs, The Kidnapping Business, p. 3.

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23 Ibid.

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28 See, for example, T383/596, ‘Payment of ransom money for kidnapped British diplomats, 1976 Jan 01–1980 Dec 31’, file obtained by authors under FOIA in 2016.

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36 For example, US Embassy Addis Ababa to State Department, 000854, ‘UK Seeks Continued Collaboration to Effect Release of Ethiopian Hostages’, 19 March 2007, 16:27 (Monday), available at: {https://Search.Wikileaks.Org/Plusd/Cables/07ADDISABABA854_A.Html} accessed 3 March 2017.

37 Toros, Harmonie, ‘“We don’t negotiate with terrorists!”: Legitimacy and complexity in terrorist conflicts’, Security Dialogue, 39:4 (2008), pp. 407426 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Neumann, P. R., ‘Negotiating with terrorists’, Foreign Affairs, 86:1 (2007), pp. 128138 Google Scholar.

38 HO325/757, Harrington to Boys Smith, ‘Home Secretary’s Visit to the United States: Kidnap and Ransom Insurance’, and attached brief ‘Points to Make’, 21 May 1986. All archival references are to the UK National Archives (TNA) unless otherwise stated.

39 FCO26/1694, ‘Anglo-French Information Talks – Background Notes’, 27/28 October 1975.

40 The Global Terrorism Database shows an increase from 50 per year in 1970 to 250 per year in 1980.

41 Wright, Richard P., Kidnap for Ransom: Resolving the Unthinkable (New York: CRC, 2009), p. 21 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Ibid. In 1971, there was even a credible kidnap threat against the British ambassador in Cuba. FCO7/1985, Sykes to Hunter, 19 May 1971.

43 Cormac, ‘Much ado about nothing’, p. 478.

44 Heath, E., The Course of My Life (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), p. 323 Google Scholar; Campbell, John, Edward Heath: A Biography (London: Cape, 1993), p. 308 Google Scholar.

45 PREM15/201, Douglas-Home to Freemen, 7 September 1970; CAB127/47, Cabinet Minutes, 9 September 1970.

46 Peter Day, ‘Heath’s secret deal to free ambassador’, Telegraph (1 January 2002).

47 FCO7/1478, Wiggin to Haddow, 9 September 1970.

48 Ibid., Macdermot to Wiggin, 10 April 1970.

49 Haddow, the British ambassador in Buenos Aires, thought that if the American ambassador was kidnapped and the demands were reasonable, the Argentinians ‘could be persuaded to do a discreet deal’. FCO7/1478, Haddow to Wiggin, ‘Kidnapping’, 27 August 1970.

50 FCO7/1763, Day to Wiggin, ‘Kidnaping of Mr J. R. Cross’, 5 October 1970.

51 Ibid., CM (70)27th meeting, item 1, 6 October 1970.

52 FCO7/1764, Douglas-Home to Bogota, 9 October 19710.

53 FCO7/1763, CM (70)27th meeting, item 1, 6 October 1970.

54 Ibid., Ottawa to FCO, 8 October 1970.

55 Ibid., Cole to Wiggin, ‘Kidnapping’, meeting with FDA, 6 October 1970.

56 FCO7/1764, Wiggin, ‘Note for the record: Mr Jasper Cross’, 12 October 1970.

57 Ibid., MI5 to PUSD and Security Department, No. 623, 12 October 1970.

58 FCO7/1763, London to Algiers, 7 October 1970.

59 FCO7/1764, Ottawa to London, 15 October 1970.

60 The British Diplomat Oral History Programme (BDOHP), Churchill Archives Cambridge, Sir Colin Imray interview, available at: {} accessed 2 April 2017.

61 BDOHP, Churchill Archives Cambridge, James Cross interview, available at: {} accessed 3 April 2017.

62 R–1986/1-DOS/ARPA, Eleanor S. Wainstein, ‘The Cross and Laporte Kidnappings, Montreal, October 1970’, report prepared for State Department and DAPRA, February 1977.

63 FCO7/1969, Ottawa to FCO, 3 December 1970.

64 Delighted British diplomats reported that ‘the FLQ kidnappers are being put to work in the cane-fields’. FCO9/1770, Cable, ‘Kidnapping’, 12 December 1970.

65 FCO7/1769, Wiggin to Barrington, ‘Mr Cross’, 9 December 1970.

66 James Cross interview, available at: {} accessed 12 March 2017. See also ‘FO gag on Mr Cross?’, Observer (13 December 1970).

67 FCO7/1768, Wiggin to Berne, 19 November 1970.

68 FCO7/1767, Draft PUS monthly letter in Vining to Day, 16 October 1970.

69 FCO7/2078, ‘Kidnapping of HM Ambassador 09.50am–10.50am’, 8 January 1971. See also Jackson, G., Surviving the Long Night (London: Vanguard, 1974), p. 3 Google Scholar.

70 Nahum, Benjamin, El Fin Del Uruguay Liberal (Montevideo: Ed. de la Banda Oriental, 1991), pp. 2336 Google Scholar.

71 The FCO seriously contemplated the use of mediums to help locate him; see FCO7/2080, Hunter to Hankey, ‘Kidnapping – Suggested use of ESP’, 16 August 1971.

72 FCO7/2078, Hennessy to FCO, ‘Kidnapping’, 6 May 1971.

73 FCO7/1880, Brief by Hunter for SoS for Cabinet, ‘Kidnapping’, 24 May 1971.

74 Ibid., FCO to Haddon, 27 May 1971.

75 FCO77/188, Jellicoe to Youde, 16 June 1971.

76 Ibid., Douglas-Home to Edward Health, 26 July 1971.

77 Ibid., Denis Greenhill to Douglas-Home, 21 July 1971.

78 FCO7/2091, Hildyard to Hunter, ‘Kidnapping’, 30 June 1971.

79 Ibid., Wright to PUS, 29 June 1971.

80 Ibid., Greenhill note, 30 June 1971.

81 Ibid., Priority, Douglas-Home to Montevideo and Santiago, 7 July 1971.

82 Ibid., Hunter to Hankey, ‘Mr Geoffrey Jackson’, 5 August 1971.

83 Ibid., Minute on Hunter to Brimelow, ‘Mr Jackson’, 5 August 1971.

84 Ibid., Hildyard to Hunter, 30 June 1971.

85 FCO77/188, Downing Street to Barrington, 17 August 1971.

86 ‘1971: British Diplomat Freed After Eight Months’, BBC News (9 September 1971), available at: {} accessed 8 May 2017.

87 New York Times (11 September 1971).

88 The previous year, the Tupamaros had demanded the release of 150 political prisoners in exchange for kidnapped CIA advisor Dan Mitrione.

89 FCO26/1694, Whyte to Warburton, ‘Terrorism, Kidnapping, Hostages’, 3 September 1975.

90 FCO7/2184, Robson memo, ‘Mr Ronald Grove: Kidnapping’, 12 December 1971.

91 Ibid., Robson to Hankey, draft, 12 December 1971.

92 Ibid., Hunter to Hankey, 14 December 1971.

93 Ibid.

94 FCO7/2401, Lloyds and Bolsa International Bank to FCO, 8 June 1973.

95 Ibid.

96 FCO7/2401, FCO, ‘Argentine Security Situation’ Telegram, 7 June 1973.

97 Ibid., Hopson to Hankey, 26 June 1973.

98 Sydney Morning Herald (2 September 1975); Pittsburgh Post Gazette (1 August 1975).

99 FCO7/2401, Davies, ‘Kidnappings and Terrorism against individuals in Argentina’, 27 November 1973.

100 FCO 58/1629, PQ of 8 November 1978 Cols. 300–02, Vol. 396, No. 4, cited in Notes for Supplementaries, ‘Will the Government Undertake not to Yield to Terrorist Blackmail’.

101 BDOHP, Churchill College Cambridge, Sir David Miers interview, available at: {} accessed 9 May 2017.

102 HM Government, ‘Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015’, Chapter 6 (2015), available at: {} accessed 6 March 2017.

103 Home Office, ‘Counter Terrorism and Security Bill, Fact Sheet – Part 6, Clause 34 – Kidnap and Ransom’ (2016), available at: {} accessed 8 November 2016.

104 On ransom insurance generally, see Merkling, Sheri and Davis, Elaine, ‘Kidnap & Ransom Insurance: a rapidly growing benefit’, Compensation & Benefits Review, 33:6 (2001), pp. 4045 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

105 HO325/612, Briefing on kidnap ransom insurance from Insurance Division DTI to Home Office, 12 April 1985.

106 The EEC began studying the question of banning kidnap insurance in 1975 when the subject was referred to them by the Italians and again in 1977 by the Germans. FCO76/1754, Telegram 211918Z, 21 December 1977.

107 FCO76/1754, Note by the UK Delegation, Kidnap-Ransom Insurance as an Incentive to the Crime, 17 December 1977.

108 FCO76/1753, Minutes of a discussion on Anti-Kidnap Insurance, 9 November 1977.

109 Ibid., Ghosh, ‘Kidnap Ransom Insurance’, 24 October 1977.

110 T199/83 THCR.3/1/34 f119, Churchill Archive Centre, Thatcher MSS, Fitzgerald to Thatcher, 28 November 1983; T204A/83 THCR.3/1/35 f27, Thatcher to Fitzgerald, 7 December 1983.

111 John Mooney, ‘Ireland seizes €6m IRA funds from Tidey kidnap’, Sunday Times (29 June 2008).

112 HO325/612, Armstrong to Havers, ‘Kidnap Ransom Insurance’, 10 February 1984.

113 Ibid.

114 Ibid., Harrington, ‘Kidnap Ransom Insurance Market’, 12 April 1985.

115 Ibid., Harrington to Colvin, 3 April 1984.

116 Ibid.

117 Sir James Adams, Control Risks Group, 30 June 1998, Appendix 28, Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Report (21 December 1998), available at: {} accessed 14 October 2016.

118 Sean McFate, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 36.

119 HO325/757, Control Risks Ltd, ‘The Role of Insurance in the Private Sector’s Response to Kidnap and Ransom’, Ref: 3021, 4 June 1985.

120 HO325/612, Brummel to Home Office, 18 April 1985.

121 Hansard, 1 May 1986, 1106.

122 HO323/757, Harrington to Boys Smith, ‘Kidnap and ransom insurance and terrorist extortion: meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – 15 May’, 14 May 1986.

123 Kathleen Callo, ‘To insurance companies, kidnap protection is worth a king’s ransom’, Los Angeles Times (6 July 1986).

124 HO325/757, Hurd to John Hume MP, 6 May 1986.

125 Ibid., Harrington to Boys Smith, ‘Kidnap and ransom insurance’, 16 May 1986.

126 Ibid., Harrington to Boys Smith, ‘Kidnap and ransom insurance and terrorist extortion: meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – 15 May’, 14 May 1986.

127 Ibid., Hurd minute, n.d. and Boys Smith to Harrington, 8 May 1986.

128 Ibid., Marsh to Harrington, ‘Kidnap and Extortion Insurgence’, and attached memo, 7 May 1986.

129 Ibid., Harris to Birt, 29 April 1986.

130 Onslow, Sue, ‘The man on the spot: Christopher Soames and decolonisation of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia’, Britain and the World, 6:1 (2013), pp. 6879 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

131 HO325/757, Soames to Hurd and draft response, 16 May 1986.

132 Ibid., McCrindle MP to Hurd, 17 April 1986, enclosing Control Risk Group memo, ‘Kidnap and Ransom Insurance’. McCrindle was also a director of the Hogg Robinson travel agency and the first chairman of All Parliamentary Group on Insurance and Financial Services.

133 Ibid., Boyd Smith (PS) memo, ‘Terrorism: Meeting with US Attorney General, Ed Meese’, 30 May 1986.

134 Ibid.

135 Ibid., Harrington to Bell, ‘Kidnap and Ransom Insurance’, 6 June 1986.

136 Ibid., Harrington to Bell, 13 June 1986, enclosing draft submission to Cabinet OD(T), ‘Kidnap Ransom Insurance and Terrorist Extortion’.

137 Briggs, The Kidnapping Business, p. 44.

138 Ibid.

139 HO325/757, Bell to Harrington, ‘Kidnap Ransom Insurance’, 4 June 1986.

140 Briggs, The Kidnapping Business, p. 43.

141 ‘No Ransom Payments to Terrorists, Cameron Tells NATO’, BBC News (2016), available at: {} accessed 12 December 2016.

142 Ibid.

143 Saunders, Frances Stonor, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 2000)Google Scholar; Wilford, Hugh, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA played America (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

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