Press Release

Al Jazeera Investigates: “THE HOSTAGE BUSINESS”

For Immediate Release:

Al Jazeera Investigates: “THE HOSTAGE BUSINESS”

Investigative Documentary Reveals that the Italian Government is Paying Ransoms to Armed Groups in Syria and Somalia for Release of Citizens Held Hostage

Airs Saturday, 10/24 at 9pm ET/ 6pm PT


A six-month investigation into hostage negotiations by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit reveals:

  • Italy paid a multimillion dollar cash ransom for the release of one Italian and one Belgian journalist, according to Syrian fighters
  • Photographs showing $11m in cash paid by the Italian government to Al Nusra in return for the release of two aid workers
  • Intelligence files showing Italy intervened in negotiations with Somali pirates to pay $525,000 for the release of a dual Italian-South African citizen and his partner
  • Criticism from President Obama’s former U.S. counter terrorism adviser,Mark Mitchell, of Italy’s actions, U.S. hostage policy and of those who pay ransoms
  • Criticism of the Obama Administration by mother of late U.S. journalist James Foley


Ransom payments in Syria

The Hostage Business, the latest documentary in Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, reveals the Italian government is paying ransoms in order to secure the release of its citizens held hostage in Syria. Relying on leaked documents, photographs and eyewitness testimony, the film exposes the multimillion-dollar payment handed over for the release of Italian journalist Domenico Querico and his colleague Pierre Piccin da Prata, a Belgian journalist. Middleman in the deal, Mu’taz Shaklab, told Al Jazeera, “The kidnappers had asked for ten million but I think they were given four million dollars.” “I was present when the money was delivered. It was me, and the Italian person who brought the money.” A member of the Farouq Brigade, which is one of the groups fighting in Syria, also witnessed the cash handover.  “The money consisted of packs of 100,000 dollars. Each was in a separate plastic bag,” says Maqmood Daboul.

Al Jazeera has also obtained photographs showing $11 million in cash handed over to representatives of Jabhat Al Nusra, a group once linked to Al Qaeda, in January 2015. The money secured the release of kidnapped aid workers Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Mazullo. The Italian Government declined to comment on Al Jazeera’s findings, stating its policy is “not to pay ransoms.”

Payments to Somali Pirates

Secret intelligence cables leaked to Al Jazeera also reveal how the Italian government intervened to secure the release of a dual Italian, South African citizen held hostage in Somalia. Bruno Pelizarri and his girlfriend Debbie Calitz were freed after Italy provided a ransom of over $525,000, the files show. Italian intelligence then covered up its involvement by feeding the media the fictional story of a daring rescue by the Western-backed Somali military. When asked about the secret documents, Pelizarri’s sister Vera Hecht confirmed the Italians’ secret involvement, saying she was told, “never to disclose that [the Italians] actually paid.” Former hostage Debbie Calitz said she found it “difficult” to keep the ransom a secret. “We were debriefed on certain things that we were not allowed to speak about.”

Obama hostage policy criticism

“Our government knows they failed us,” says the mother of U.S. journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS in August last year. She describes the ordeal as a “a travesty.” She directs her criticism squarely at Mark Mitchell, President Obama’s counter terrorism adviser until January 2015, saying he “had absolutely no compassion for us.” “All he knew was no concessions,” she says, claiming he threatened the family three times against negotiating. “We just were appalled.” Mitchell denies making the threats, saying, “The idea that it’s somehow shocking that a government official would encourage people to abide by the law, I think I find shocking in itself.” Mitchell also criticises European governments for paying ransoms, saying they ought to have “the moral courage to do so openly”. Instead, “They maintain this public fiction that they’re opposed to the payments”. He argues that President Obama has puts lives at risk with his recent hostage policy review, which removed the threat of prosecution should families try to pay ransoms. Saying that not only does it contravene international law “it does not contribute to the safety of US citizens.”  

“Now, they are subject to being beggared by the hostage takers. There’s no excuse. The hostage takers can just say clear out your bank accounts, sell your home, we want it all and they have no defense,” says Mitchell. 

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About Al Jazeera America

Al Jazeera America is the U.S. news channel that provides both domestic and international news for American audiences. Headquartered in New York City with bureaus in 12 cities across the United States, AJAM carries an award-winning mix of live news, special programming, documentaries and more. To find AJAM in your area, visit Visit AJAM online at  Like us on Facebook and follow @AJAM@AJAMCorp on Twitter for the latest news and updates. Join the conversation using #AJAM.


Mallory Weinberg

(646) 805-2043


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