South Africa’s foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who announced Mr. McGown’s release at a news conference in Pretoria on Thursday, responded vaguely when a reporter asked her whether a ransom had been paid.
“The South African government does not subscribe to payment of ransoms,” she said. “That’s why I focused on the work we have been doing in the past six years: campaigning, engaging with governments, and with the captors the way we know how. That’s what we have been doing. And that’s what we can confirm.”
Gift of the Givers had previously been involved in an effort to free Yolande and Pierre Korkie, a South African couple abducted in Yemen in May 2013 by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The wife was released, but her husband and his cellmate — Luke Somers, an American photojournalist — were killed in December 2014, when United States commandos stormed the village where they were being held.
Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of Gift of the Givers, did not respond on Thursday to phone and email messages requesting comment.
The United States and Britain have strict no-ransom policies, but other countries, including France and Germany, have taken suitcases of cash to the desert to win the freedom of their citizens. The expenditures were disguised as “humanitarian aid to Africa.”
The group that held Mr. McGown emerged as Al Qaeda’s official branch in North Africa over a decade ago, rising to prominence in large part because of the extraordinary sums it garnered from ransoms. Starting in 2003, with the abduction of 32 European tourists who were freed after government payments estimated to total €5 million, the group has kidnapped dozens of foreigners, including travelers, aid workers and journalists.
Few people were released without a payment of some kind or some form of prisoner swap. Ransoms in at least some of the cases were negotiated directly by Al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mr. McGown was freed a few days ago in northern Mali, an area dominated by Islamist militants.
He was taken hostage on Nov. 25, 2011, along with two European tourists: Sjaak Rijke of the Netherlands, who was freed by French commandos in Mali, and Johan Gustafsson of Sweden, who was released in June.
In their capture, the men were taken from the inn and herded into a truck at gunpoint. A fourth man — a German tourist who refused to get into the truck — was killed on the…