The family of an American woman who went missing last year while distributing humanitarian aid in Syria revealed on Tuesday that she is being held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for ransom, highlighting the increased toll that a slew of conflicts have taken on aid workers in the last year.
According to ABC News, the militant group is demanding a ransom of $6.6 million, along with the release of a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted of trying to kill U.S. officials, in exchange for the 26-year old woman’s life. The woman’s family asked ABC that her name be withheld for her protection.As of now, there are three known Americans in the hands of ISIS, including journalist Steven Sotloff, the unnamed woman, and an unidentified male. Last week, ISIS released a video showing the execution of the fourth American, journalist James Foley, in a warning to the United States.
Despite their life-giving mission, humanitarian workers have faced an increase in violence against them over the past several years. Every year, the Aid Worker Security Database, a project of Humanitarian Outcomes, publishes a report of the previous year’s threats against humanitarians around the world. According to the most recent version, 2013 “set a new record for violence against civilian aid operations, with 251 separate attacks affecting 460 aid workers” Of those, 134 were kidnapped, and overall the data shows a 66 percent increase in attacks from the previous year.
Using the aforementioned database, users can sort through types of attack, date, country, and who precisely was targeted. Over the last 18 months, there have been at least 37 aid workers kidnapped in the course of their work in Syria. That number, however, could actually be higher given that some families or organizations may want to keep such abductions secret. According to the methodology provided, the data is drawn from public reports, with the Humanitarian Outcomes team verifying with various parties how accurate the reports are. In examining the data for last year, when the American apparently first went missing, the database shows zero female aid workers who were kidnapped.
The overall trend remains worrying, enough so that last year’s report was titled “The New Normal: Coping with the kidnapping threat.” Abby Stoddard, who works with the database, told IRIN that the data “clearly show kidnapping to be a major and growing threat. In 2011 the numbers of kidnapping incidents outnumbered shootings — roadside and otherwise — as the main form of attack used against aid workers.”
It remains unknown which aid organization the American woman being held in Syria was working with when she was kidnapped. But there are several options to choose from, given the plethora of aid agencies currently working to provide to the 2.2 million Syrians in need of assistance. Among those who found themselves under attack last year includes the International Committee of the Red Cross, who earlier this year saw the release of three of the six workers that had been kidnapped in Syria in October.
ISIS also requested a ransom for Foley, according to his family, one that was not in the end paid due to a long-standing American policy. Instead, the U.S. launched a military rescue mission, though he and other hostages were moved before the operation began. But the military option isn’t the only alternative to paying ransom. Just recently the government of Qatar helped secure the release of journalist Peter Theo Curtis in an exchange that the U.S. says did not involve the exchange of money with al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The Qatari government reportedly wants to help in the cases of the other three Americans still being held in Syria, but has had difficulty working with ISIS.
The issue of ransoms is an especially tricky one for Americans held captive, given the comparative ease in which European governments readily pay for their citizens release. In a New York Times investigation, governments and companies in Europe were found to have paid around $125 million in ransoms to terrorist groups since 2008. So far the administration has yet to comment one way or another on the woman in captivity, but given the U.S.’ history on this matter, paying ISIS off seems unlikely.