UN Expert: ISIS Received Up to $45 Million in Ransom Payments Over the Past Year

A United Nations terrorism expert said on Monday that the Islamic State terrorist group has made between $35 million and $45 million off of ransom payments in the past year alone, the Associated Press reports.

Speaking at a hearing for the U.N. Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Committee, Yotsna Lalji, an expert who has monitored Al Qaeda and other extremist groups, told the committee that the extremist practice of kidnapping for a source of revenue "continues to grow."

By telling the committee that the Islamic State has made as much as $45 million off of ransom payments this past year, Lalji put that dollar amount into perspective by stating that an estimated total of just $120 million in ransom payments were paid to terrorist organizations in the span of 2004 to 2012.

Lalji noted that Al Qaeda leadership is likely responsible for the recent incline in the extremist groups' use of kidnappings. She mentioned that in October 2012 Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a recording where he urged extremists across the world to kidnap Westerners.

Lalji further noted that since the recording, Al Qaeda and its affiliates, which used to include the Islamic State up until 2013, began to use kidnappings as "the core Al Qaeda tactic for generating revenue."

To further compare the magnitude of ISIS's revenue from ransom payments, Lalji noted that Al Qaeda groups in the Arabian Peninsula received just $20 million off of such payments in a three-year span between 2011 and 2013. Al Qaeda groups operating in North Africa brought home $75 million in ransom payments in the past four years, with Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia having "collected millions of dollars in the past years."

Although Lalji said that a more recent Filipino ISIS affiliate, Abu Sayyaf, has received about $1.5 million in ransom payments, a representative from the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium stated that Abu Sayyaf hit the jackpot when they received a $5 million ransom payment for two German hostages they captured.

Lalji said that while most terrorist groups conduct the kidnappings themselves, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also use the help of Yemeni tribesmen, who deliver hostages to the militants in exchange for payment.

Although the Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee found that most of the extremist groups' captives tend to be people that are kidnapped within their own home country, foreign hostages from Western nations tend to generate the largest ransom payments.

According to testimony from the fixer who got slain American journalist Steven Sotloff into Syria in August 2013, one technique purportedly used by ISIS to find foreigners to kidnap is using border patrol guards to snitch to the militants when foreigners cross the border.

Sotloff's fixer told CNN in September that he believes a border patrol guard ratted them out to ISIS militants when he and Sotloff crossed the Turkey border into Syria. Both men were kidnapped shortly after crossing the border when they were stopped by an ISIS roadblock in the border town of Aleppo.

Although extremist organizations are starting to rely heavily on ransom payments as a primary source of revenue, some Western countries, including the United States and Britain, have policies that make it illegal to negotiate or pay ransom to terrorist groups.

Although the families of Sotloff and fellow slain American journalist James Foley attempted to raise money to pay off their loved ones' ransom to ISIS, their efforts were quickly shot down by the State Department who warned the families of the potential prosecution if they attempted to pay the ransom.

Having received much criticism from the hostages' families about how the government handled the hostage situation, President Barack Obama ordered a full review of how the federal government responds when its citizens are taken hostage overseas. However, Obama explicitly said that the review would not change anything in the policy that would allow Americans to negotiate or pay ransoms to terrorists.