From the CEO-abducting guerillas of 1970s Latin America to the tourist-snatching Somali pirates of the late 2000s, the underground world of kidnappers has enjoyed a half-century run of global notoriety and lucrative ransoms. While thriller movies deliver us murdered hostages and chaotic, adrenaline-fueled negotiations, the reality is less Die Hard and more like OnStar on steroids.
“The large majority of kidnap victims are successfully ransomed,” Anja Shortland writes in her new book Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business, in which she claims that 81 percent of kidnap-for-ransom victims are returned, unharmed, in under seven days. “Clearly the hostage trade functions surprisingly well in the large majority of cases. How can such a difficult market operate so successfully?”
For Shortland, it’s a two-part answer, the first of which begins with Lloyd’s of London. (Yes, the high-end insurer of Renaissance masterpieces, satellites, and celebrity body parts.) Lloyd’s underwrites the world’s market in kidnap insurance, dispatching a network of highly trained crisis responders to manage negotiations, cash drops, and hostage returns. (In case you’re curious, kidnap insurance is exceedingly difficult to obtain and offered only under rigorous restrictions — the most notable of which is that those covered under the policy are intentionally denied knowledge of their insurance, as hostages blabbing about their coverage would undermine negotiations.)
The second reason why the hostage trade remains disciplined is cultural. Kidnappings largely occur in failing states, like Somalia and Yemen, or in regions of countries where the state is battling insurgents or drug cartels, such as Mexico, Colombia, and northern Nigeria under the reign of Boko Haram. “In cultures where hostage-taking is an established way of resolving community conflict, such as in the tribal areas of Yemen, hostages traditionally have the social status of a guest,” Shortland writes. “In Mexico, criminal groups that carry out kidnapping actually have a reputation for bargaining in good faith.”
The result of this interplay is an aggressive Walmart-style supply-chain management in which ransom prices are lowered and standardized based on previous prices and local customs. In Nigeria, ransoms for C-suite executives are routinely settled for $5,000 to $12,000 U.S. dollars, a pittance of what their multinational employers could mobilize. To maintain these low ransoms, insurance firms now market not just to rich firms but to wealthy families, especially with the proliferation of private-school pupils taking gap years in developing countries. “Remortgaging the Park Lane flat would probably bring young Freddie home — but it could
also destabilize the local market for hostages,” Shortland chides.
Cheeky quips like this are frequent and funny, but they can also make a reader question to whom this book is aimed. Yes, it’s an academic book. Shortland is a political economy professor at King’s College in London, and her treatise is filled with graphs and a whole chapter on crafting effective protection contracts. But it’s not hard to see a secondary market for this book, passed on by word-of-mouth among the corporate shock troops of disaster capitalism.
With chapter titles like “Trading With Kidnappers” and “Why Do Hostages Die?” Shortland writes in direct, unfussy prose, using real transcripts of hostage negotiations and insider interviews with negotiators and kidnappers to cover every facet of kidnapping and hostage negotiations. Throw in her dry wit, blistering developing-world travel narratives, and the salacious content of behind-the-scenes ransom debates, and good chunks of the book can come across as The Lonely Planet Guide to Being Taken Hostage.
The London School of Economics Ph.D. won some crossover academic fame in the early 2010s with her work on the price negotiations of Somali pirates who hijacked yachts and supertankers. She served as a consultant to the World Bank and several countries’ naval forces on the subject. On her website, the professor posits that her research attempts to answer two questions: “How can legal entities successfully transact with criminal enterprises? How do private enterprises control and discourage criminal activity when law enforcement is weak?”
But for the rest of us, who are more curious than dispassionate about the exotic underpinnings of hostage-ransoming corporate executives, Kidnap is a jarring guide to the extralegal economy built on the temporary custody of the bodies of the 1 percent.