- - Sunday, July 14, 2019


By Anja Shortland

Oxford University Press, $24.95, 249 pages

Kidnap for ransom, whether by criminal or terrorist organizations, is a highly lucrative illicit business for the successful kidnappers (especially when foreigners are targeted) and life-threatening for the victims. It is even a lucrative business for those in the commercial sector who command high fees for their efforts to secure the hostages’ release, usually by arranging high ransom payments to the kidnappers.

In the case of Western government officials, however, attempting to secure the release of their countries’ citizens places them in the difficult position of having to violate their policy of no negotiations with terrorists by agreeing to ransom payments or prisoner exchanges with the terrorist kidnappers.

These highly controversial moral issues of paying monetary or political ransoms to various types of kidnappers, as well as, when possible, deciding to employ military or police special forces to rescue the victims are discussed in Anja Shortland’s interesting and extensively researched “Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business.”

The British-based author’s account is based on numerous interviews with security and insurance industry practitioners who constitute the community of “hostage stakeholders” involved either in providing insurance liability coverage to those who travel to high-risk countries, such as the group of insurers at Lloyd’s of London, and, in case of an abduction, representatives of companies such as Control Risk, that are hired by employers to arrange for their ransom-based release.

One of the book’s running themes is that the intriguing interaction between such legal industry players and the kidnappers’ criminal networks has created an intricate and well-running legal and illicit behind-the-scenes governance system.

Kidnapping hostages is not “an easy spoil” or “a profitable trade” even for the kidnappers, the author explains, but “the trade in hostages is the trickiest trade in the world! There are so many obstacles to the successful resolution of a hostage crisis, that the safe return of any hostage seems like a miracle.” This is because it presents significant challenges for the kidnappers as well as the victims’ “stakeholders.” Logistically, the kidnappers must first acquire a “live hostage” and then transport him to a sanctuary place where the hostage(s) can be hidden and guarded, and from which ransom negotiations can be safely conducted.

Another challenge for the kidnappers is determining how to “price” a hostage’s monetary worth and assigning collaborators for hostage-release negotiations. There are several parties who participate in the negotiation or contribute to the monetary ransom: The victim’s employer or immediate family, or their government.

Interestingly, as the author notes, the information about such counterpart negotiators is often provided by the victims themselves. But challenges remain. Once a price is settled, how is the ransom to be paid? Banks are forbidden to handle criminal transactions, whoever is hired to drop off the cash is placed at risk, and kidnappers are likely aware of potential surveillance or an ambush at the specified rendezvous point. Finally, the author writes, “is it really in [the kidnappers’] interest to release a live hostage? Might the hostage reveal useful information to the police?”

The author notes that when ransoms are paid to criminal organizations, “in around 90 percent of cases the hostages return alive” because of ransomers’ objective to maximize revenue. In many kidnappings by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS), however, the hostages will be killed because the terrorists intentionally “develop fearsome reputations by publicizing the torture and killing of hostages to a wide audience” in order to “humiliate and confront Western governments with their inability to protect their own citizens.” Such murder, the author adds, is also employed to preserve the terrorist kidnappers’ anonymity.

What can be done to reduce the risk of hostage kidnapping? The first line of protection, the author writes, is the mandate by insurers that employees who travel to high-risk regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa (particularly countries such as Somalia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Mali), Colombia, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, receive anti-kidnap awareness and training, as well as, if possible, securing the services of a local security company. This is so crucial that if it is determined that “the customer acted negligently or recklessly — or even conspired in the kidnap — reimbursement is withheld as a sanction.”

While ransom payments to criminal hostage-takers is perceived by the author as a necessary evil that at least has a high likelihood of success, paying ransom to terrorists is a different matter. The author recommends that “leaders and opinion-makers should revisit the UN ban on ransom payments to terrorists. Most governments do not want to fund and fuel terrorism and a complete ban on ransom payments would achieve this objective.”

However, since some countries still pay ransoms to terrorists to release their citizens, the author recommends that a multilateral governance system should be established to minimize such ransoms, and that when such ransoms are paid they should be considered to be a non-governmental “private matter.” While such a solution might be considered by those who advocate a firm government response to terrorism as amoral, at least it reflects the reality of how such ransom payments are made by the responding stakeholders in the real world.

The important issues raised by this book make it an indispensable guide for those interested in understanding the dark world of kidnapping for ransom.

• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, DC-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.

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