- - Sunday, May 5, 2019


By Anja Shortland

Oxford University Press $24.95, 249 pages

In “Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business,” author Anja Shortland calls kidnapping “the trickiest trade in the world.” Thousands of persons are kidnapped annually, in many instances to be ransomed by employers’ insurance, a multimillion dollar annual business. And Ms. Shortland addresses the logical question: “Does kidnapping for ransom insurance encourage kidnapping? Would people be safer if insurance did not exist?”

At hand is a read that is both fascinating and terrifying — of innocent persons snatched off the streets and threatened with death unless someone pays for their release. Kidnapping is so prevalent in odd corners of the world that freeing of hostages has led to the establishment of “ground rules” that are generally obeyed both by villains and the ransom payers.

Many nations, including the United States, prohibit their governments from paying ransom to free kidnap hostages. Hence the rise of a sub-culture of the insurance business, a tight coterie of companies affiliated with Lloyd’s of London. Although the system operates outside the bounds of formal law enforcement, it provides a necessary service for businesses operating abroad.

How big is the “kidnap industry?” As Ms. Shortland, of King’s College London notes, “only a minority of kidnap cases are ever recorded in official statistics.” Local authorities rightly fear that publicity will reduce an area’s attractiveness for tourism and investment. Thus “only a minority of kidnap cases are ever recorded in official statistics.” Further, insurance companies do not wish to publicize just how lucrative kidnapping can be.

The sharp rise in Muslim extremism in the Middle East has given a boost to such criminality. The head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula declared a few years back, “Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.” (Such groups often prefer to kill hostages for propaganda purposes.)

In India, an insurgency group called Naxalite is said to prey upon families that are known to have received an inheritance or sold a major asset. In Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) collects detailed data on any firm operating in its territory to single out targets.

The 20 or so companies devoted to kidnap insurance work from a tight cluster of offices on the ground floor of the Lloyd’s offices on Lime Street in London. Ms. Shortland estimates they receive more than $500 million income annually. (A good amount of this money, of course, is paid out to free employees of client countries.)

The group has an exclusive aura akin to that of a London dining club. Member firms are said to be open “to honorable men and closed forever to notorious cheats.”

The ransom business can be tricky. The major challenge is to acquire a live hostage and convey them to a place where a random negotiation can be carried out. Both sides have a strong incentive to reach closure. “Dead bodies are difficult to sell,” Ms. Shortland notes.

Payment is usually demanded through used, unmarked small denomination bills. And there is the danger that a hired courier might decide to abscond with the ransom rather than deliver it. Given the risks inherent in dealing with criminals, intermediaries can command $5,000 or more a day.

But the experts who shared information with Ms. Shortland said that “In around 90 percent of cases” the captive was released alive. Between 2000 and 2014, a consultancy named Control Risks reported that hostages were freed in 85.5 percent of the cases it handled. Six percent managed to escape, and only 2.5 percent resulted in deaths. Other rescue firms reported deaths ranging from 0.3 percent to 3 percent.

Ms. Shortland’s sources told her that in a sample year, 2016, 81 percent of kidnaps lasted less than a week, and only 4 percent exceeded four weeks.

What is the price of freedom? Industry gossip is that the record ransom was $60 million, paid to free two rich brothers in Argentina in 1975. For obvious reasons, insurers are not talkative about what is paid in individual cases. But Ms. Shortland cites cases where ransoms ranged past the million-dollar mark.

The industry imposes several rules on clients. Individuals are not specifically told that they are covered by kidnap insurance; even if seized, they are instructed to remain silent on the subject. The insurance companies, for their part, decline to discuss negotiations with law enforcement officials (doing so could jeopardize the lives of captives).

In many instances, employees working in dangerous areas are given stringent training in security measures to protect themselves.

But by no means do all companies seek insurance, preferring to protect employees through other measures. One hears soto voce stories of how retired U.S. special forces operators employed by a shipping company used machine guns to put several Somali-based pirate bands out of business forever.

The bottom line: Like it or not, kidnap insurance seems a necessary expense in a turbulent world. And perpetrators are not apt to heed United Nations resolutions on the subject.

• Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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