Inside the Ransom Business

Oxford UP, 2019 more...

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For most people, hostage situations are exotic events that play out in Hollywood movies. But for a subset of the global population, kidnapping looms as a legitimate threat. In this engaging look at a little-examined niche, piracy expert Anja Shortland spells out the economics of abduction. For all the terror and drama created by kidnappings, the crimes tend to follow well-worn patterns, and most criminals behave honorably – at least when it comes to promises to release hostages unharmed. Senior managers at multinationals, security officials, actuaries and anyone who travels to risky locales will benefit from this briefing.


“The Trickiest Trade in the World”

Kidnapping is a burgeoning business, one that sees thousands of victims per year snatched and held for ransom. Perpetrators include terrorists, criminals and political activists. Though one al Qaeda figure was quoted as calling ransom “an easy spoil,” cashing in on a kidnapping is no simple feat. The kidnappers must find a victim who’s likely to fetch a ransom, then they must keep the hostage sheltered, fed and secure – in other words, the victim is worthless if he or she is dead. The next hurdle for the kidnapper is determining who to ask for the ransom. Perhaps it’s the victim’s boss or family, or maybe it’s the hostage’s home government. Getting paid isn’t easy, either – banks won’t handle ransom payments, and kidnappers typically want currency in small denominations.

With so many obstacles, it’s no wonder that kidnappings sometimes go awry, with victims murdered secretly or killed publicly. The more fascinating question is why so many abductions for profit succeed. Official statistics about kidnappings are hard to come by. Authorities believe releasing information about kidnapping incidents will only...

About the Author

Anja Shortland is an expert on Somali piracy and a reader in political economy at King’s College in London. She has advised the World Bank and international navies.

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