Perils of paying off the pirates

Kidnapping remains a lucrative business. Anja Shortland's new book examines how and where it thrives

Robert Low

Hostage-taking, whether for ransom or political leverage, is as old as the hills. Jehoash, king of Israel, is recorded as having removed hostages as well as plenty of loot after taking Jerusalem nearly 3,000 years ago, and it took a ransom of 100,000 pounds of silver—or two to three times the English crown’s annual income—to ransom Richard Coeur de Lion from Henry VI, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor in 1194. (It makes £39 billion to pay off today’s Unholy German Empire seem quite good value.)

So it has always been a lucrative business and continues to be so, as Anja Shortland, Reader in Political Economics at Kings College London, demonstrates in her new book. Well, lucrative for some but not all. Ms Shortland’s speciality is how business gets done in failed states, such as Somalia, and she devotes a considerable part of her book to a study of the Somali pirates who wreaked havoc with shipping off their shores for a couple of decades.

Perhaps the most surprising conclusion she reaches is that few Somalis did very well out of the business, despite the enormous ransoms sometimes paid by Western shipowners, and certainly not the pirates themselves. Shortland shows how the expenses of holding a ship hostage quickly mounted up, and after a ransom was finally paid the money disappeared among a vast network of clans, elders, negotiators and sundry hangers-on, all taking their cut, while many of the pirates blew their share on high living, or what passes for it in that benighted country.

This is a curiously bloodless study of a horrible crime: to be a kidnap victim is to suffer a dreadful ordeal but you’d hardly guess it from these pages. Ms Shortland is more interested in the dynamics of kidnapping: how and where it thrives (usually in regions where law and order has all but broken down), the lucrative business of kidnap insurance, dominated by a few highly-skilled syndicates at Lloyd’s of London, and the intricate mechanics of negotiating a ransom with volatile and unstable hostage takers. The acknowledged market leader in kidnap negotiation is the British security firm Control Risks: between 2000 and 2014, the hostages were safely released in 85.5 per cent of cases resolved by Control Risks, while six per cent were rescued and six per cent escaped. This is an extraordinary endorsement of the firm’s professionalism, which dates back five decades.

The demands on a negotiator (usually ex-forces, often the SAS) are immense: verifying the hostage is still alive, establishing a rapport with the kidnappers and, above all, reducing their expectations. It can be a lengthy and gruelling affair, as I learnt when co-authoring a book on the subject (The Kidnap Business, 1986) with a former kidnap negotiator and SAS officer, Mark Bles, in which we analysed several of his cases—all Italian, from the 1970s—in great detail. (Ms Shortland is evidently unaware of it, judging by her bibliography.)

The only such case study in her book is a second-hand one, on the lengthy process of trying to procure the release of a Danish cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in 2008. The negotiations on the Danish side were filmed by a TV documentary team so there is an accurate public record of how the Danes managed to barter the pirates down from their initial $3.25 million demand to about $1.7 million over three months. It is a fascinating read, revealing in particular the courage of the ship’s captain in fooling the pirates about the real state of his vessel. While the crew were eventually freed along with their ship, the leader of the original pirate crew was killed in a firefight when he went ashore, while the pirates’ negotiator had to flee for his life empty-handed, his employees apparently disappointed with his efforts on their behalf. So not a bad result, all things considered.

Ms Shortland’s most interesting (and unexpected) conclusion is that the private sector—in particular Lloyd’s and its associates such as Control Risks—performs a lot better than governments in dealing with kidnapping and piracy. Many Western governments—such as Spain, Germany and Switzerland—have behaved shamefully in recent years in caving in almost immediately to kidnappers’ demands when their own citizens are snatched by lawless gangs, paying ridiculously high ransoms far too quickly. This behaviour only encourages others to get in on the act, risking the safety of Western business people or tourists in unstable countries. Britain and the US have led the way in refusing to pay ransoms, which admittedly has led to the killing of some British and American hostages, but in the long run it must surely be a better way to deal with this scourge.

Still, governments have an important role to play here. Kidnapping has virtually disappeared in Western Europe, thanks to a tough line by governments and police, the banning of ransom payments, news blackouts (a Scotland Yard invention), and long jail terms for kidnappers. Somali piracy has been suppressed by united action by Western governments who finally woke up to the menace and sent warships to the region. But as Ms Shortland shows, this oldest of crimes will continue to flourish in the many regions where the rule of law does not really exist.


Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business
By Anja Shortland
Oxford, 249pp, £18.99

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