ROME—Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo, the two young Italian aid workers who were kidnapped in Syria last July may feel lucky to be alive, but they should feel even luckier that they are Italian. The two women were released on Thursday after “intense negotiations” between Italy’s foreign ministry and brokers for Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. To most Italians, those “intense negotiations” are a not-so-subtle code for ransom payment.
Hours before they were flown from Turkey to Rome at dawn on Friday morning, several prominent Italian politicians accused the government of financing terrorism by paying $12 million for the pair’s freedom. Matteo Salvini, a member of Italy’s xenophobic Northern League said he was glad the two girls were home. “But if it is true that the two friends of Syria were freed because the government paid $12 million, that would be disgusting,” he said.
The Italian government denies making a direct ransom payment, which may be true enough, especially if they enlisted a third party country to make the payment for them, as is often the standard practice in the hostage business. According to a landmark investigative report by the New York Times last summer, more than $125 million has been paid to al Qaeda and its affiliates since 2008 to secure the release of mostly European hostages. “Italy has once again succumbed to blackmail?” Marco Martinelli, a parliamentarian for Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right party told reporters when news of the aid workers’ release was announced Thursday night. “At the moment when the whole of Europe elevates internal security to defend ourselves against terrorism, we cannot send the message that the Italian government subsidizes terrorist cells who are searching for money to buy weapons and perpetuate new terrorist attacks of every genre.”
The young women, who co-founded the NGO Horryaty to deliver medical supplies to Syrian civilians and by some accounts rather naively traveled to Syria with little training or experience, have not yet talked about their ordeal. But on Friday morning, friends and family members told Italian media that they were treated “terribly” having been starved and beaten while in captivity. They were also reportedly moved often and had no access to proper food or water for basic hygiene.
The women were seen for the first time since their abduction in a video released New Year’s eve in which they blamed the Italian government for joining the United States as an ally in the fight in Syria. At the time, they also alluded to the fact that their lives hung in the balance if their government didn’t act to release them. “We supplicate our government and its mediators to bring us home before Christmas. We are in big danger and we could be killed,” they said in the video. “The government and mediators are responsible for our lives.”
On Friday, well-sourced Italian journalists reported that the video came at a crucial moment in the investigations when the young women were at the center of a bidding war between the Italian government and its brokers and ISIS, who also made an offer for the hostages. At the time the video was released an Italian diplomat told The Daily Beast that the video was part of the negotiation. “There’s surprise at the captors’ decision to upload this video now,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition he not be identified. “Obviously it is meant to put pressure on us but it may be more connected with the captors need to display their hostage trophies for reasons of internal jihadist politics and maneuvering.”
According to investigative journalist Fiorenza Sarzanini of Corriere della Sera, quoting confidential sources at Italy’s foreign ministry, the negotiators had agreed that the women would be freed for a sum of $2 million days before the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. But after the attacks, the kidnappers demanded $10 million more. Where those funds came from, if true, is of great concern to Italian opposition politicians who have vowed to open an inquiry into the matter.
Last September, Italy’s deputy foreign minister Lapo Pistelli alluded to an Italian radio station that the government has paid ransoms in the past. “Cases vary,” he said, chiding the American and British government policies on forbidding ransom payments as “mechanical.”
“In most cases where we have succeeded in intervening positively, there was no money payment,” he said. “We have never carried out a military blitz, but that doesn’t mean we have always reached for our wallets.”
The young women were reunited with their families early Friday morning, but they will have to undergo medical exams and debrief anti-terrorism and security officials before they are allowed to return home. One of the women is thought to be suffering a serious infection and in need of urgent medical care according to family members. In photos of their arrival in Rome’s Ciampino airport, they both looked extremely shocked and pale, clinging on to each other for support as they walked across the tarmac.
On Friday, Italy’s parliament will take up the matter of their release and address the accusations of ransom payments during a special parliamentary session. The women are not the last Italian hostages in the Middle East. Four other Italians, including Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio and aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, are still missing. News of the young women’s release will surely comfort the remaining hostages’ families; and news that a ransom may have been paid will no doubt have the same effect on the hostage takers.