BOOK: Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business by Anja Shortland

Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business
Anja Shortland, Oxford University Press, 2019


The business of kidnap for ransom is complex and fascinating. Millions live and work in areas with significant kidnap risks and a number of security consultancies closely monitor kidnaps around the world to help clients manage the risk. Looking at the outcomes of situations where the kidnappers have demanded a concession of some kind in return for the hostage, around 90% of those hostages are returned alive, and according to one of the better-known consultancies (Control Risks) in 2016, 81% of kidnaps lasted less than a week and only four per cent exceeded four weeks.

All this points to a surprisingly well-functioning trade in a “difficult market”, and one in which insurance plays a big part.

Kidnap for ransom insurance was first developed in 1932 as a niche product for the very rich following the abduction and death of Charles Lindbergh’s son. It has changed a great deal since then, a “very strange product” that is no longer just for the ultra-rich. While provided through a number of insurers, all K&R risks are underwritten by Lloyd’s of London, with rigorous protocols for obtaining cover and for resolving incidents.

But the K&R insurance market does not operate without suspicion, and in her first book, Anja Shortland tackles the question around insurers being in cahoots with criminals; “not just mitigating but optimising the threat level on which demand for their products relies?”

“What exactly is the role of insurers in this system?” Shortland asks. “Would people be safer if insurance did not exist? These questions should be at the back of our minds as we analyse this intricate, complex governance system – a wonderful testament to human ingenuity. I see a system that puts the welfare of the hostage centre stage – but also prevents ransom payments from escalating, so as not to put others at risk. Kidnap insurance and the services associated with it thereby facilitate international trade and investment, resource extraction, aid, development initiatives, research and reporting from some of the most complex and hostile security environments in the world. Is this not in the public interest?”

Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business covers all this and more – an intense read about the extra-legal market of kidnap for ransom and the complex business logic of its protagonists.

As founding director of Control Risks, Julian Radcliffe, puts it, Shortland’s book offers “rigorous analysis which is needed not just in this field but also in cyber, art crime and all those areas where the lack of international policing leaves the private sector to find its own solutions…”

Anja Shortland is a Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London. She studies private governance in the world’s trickiest markets: hostages, fine art, and antiquities – and how people live, trade and invest in complex and hostile territories. Although often based on data analysis, her work usually cuts across disciplinary boundaries adopting techniques and insights from sociology, engineering, geography, politics, international relations and economics.

Shortland’s research focuses on how people structure trades in markets where states do not reliably provide law and order. She has published widely on the issue of kidnap and hijack for ransom and co-authored the 2013 World Bank Policy Report, The Pirates of Somalia: Ending the Threat; Rebuilding a Nation.

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