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Review: Governing Criminal Markets: The role of insurers in kidnap for ransom

uctzrec28 April 2017

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tony D. Curtis/Released

The issue of kidnapping for ransom often appears in the media, with certain high profile cases dominating the headlines for weeks.  According to these cases, hostages are brutalized and regularly murdered to either send a political message or due to external environmental factors such as stress.  However, Dr Anja Shortland, of King’s College London, argues differently.  She claims through her extensive research on the subject that the majority of kidnapping for ransom cases end with the victim returning home safely.  And all this is thanks to a stable and well governed private market.

Dr Shortland began her research ‘when [Somali] piracy was cool’ back in 2014.  She was fascinated by questions revolving around the value of a human life and about how companies could interact with criminal organizations legitimately and safely.  When she analyzed the effectiveness of private companies in recovering prisoners, she discovered a surprisingly high success rate.  In fact, when foreign nationals or nationals working for multinational companies were kidnapped, 97.5% returned safely to their families.  In the remaining 2.5%, hostages were mainly killed due to rescue or escape attempts.  Therefore, it appears that the kidnap for ransom market is fairly stable and well governed.

One fascinating aspect of the kidnap for ransom business is the interplay between legitimate businesses and criminal enterprises.  On the business side, insurers play a role in the governance of the market.  In order to do so, they must accomplish certain tasks.  First and foremost they must conduct successful resolutions to hostage incidents, i.e. family members must return home safely.  However, they must do so by understanding the kidnapping risks in geographic areas, pricing policies accordingly and knowing the ‘average’ cost of a ransom.   If firms can fulfill these requirements, they can play an important role in saving lives and providing valuable services.

Dr Shortland also addressed the issue when terrorist groups conduct kidnapping for ransom activities.  Her research argues that private firms act as stabilizers in the market so long as ransom prices remain constant.  Therefore, it is in the interest of the market and in the interest of the victims that firms pay the required ransom amount.  This sum usually never rises above a few thousand US-Dollars (USD) and only in very rare circumstances will a group request and be paid over a million USD.  However, this dynamic changes when the ‘terrorist’ label is introduced, usually by governments.

State involvement in the market is seen as counterproductive and even dangerous for several reasons.  Given that the counterparty has changed from a private to a public organization, the stakes increase.  Governments tend to be weak negotiators because they are myopic and in part regulated by public perception and the media.  Essentially, while a private firm may be willing to conduct a relatively long negotiation (most kidnapping for ransom cases rarely extend more than a week or so), governments must deliver results in a short time frame and they must achieve success.

Furthermore, and more importantly, governments are not limited by a hard budget.  This means that while a terrorist group may request a lower ransom, governments generally overcompensate to ensure the release of the hostages.  While this is generally a positive outcome, overpaying destabilizes the market prices for hostages and can cause an increase in insurance premiums.  This, in turn, can reduce coverage and result in more uninsured and consequently vulnerable employees that might be at risk of being kidnapped.   Dr Shortland uses this argument to support her claims that private institutions are best suited to provide governance of the kidnapping for ransom market.

This academic work can help to understand market dynamics and provides some ideas of how public and private actors interact with each other.  Furthermore, the field addresses issues of how legitimate and legal firms can maintain complex and working relationships with criminal and terrorist organizations.  Shortland’s arguments provided a concise and detailed presentation of the research that she been conducting over several years.  For any further information please read her numerous papers on the subject and keep your eye out for upcoming publications.

 

I am an American/Italian MSc student reading for a degree in Countering Organized Crime and Terrorism at the Jill Dando Institute.  I like to think/write about the crime-terror nexus, organized crime in Italy and art crime. Contact: LinkedIn

The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the UCL Organised Crime Research Network.

Upcoming Seminar: “Governing Criminal Markets: The role of insurers in kidnap for ransom”

Patricio Estevez-Soto21 April 2017

We are happy to announce a new seminar: Governing Criminal Markets: The role of insurers in kidnap for ransom, by Dr Anja Shortland, from King’s College London.

The seminar will be held on Tuesday April 25, 2017 at 5:15 pm, in the Teaching room of the Department of Security and Crime Science (35 Tavistock Square, London, WC1H 9EZ). As usual we welcome all who are interested in the topic of organised crime, and the OCRN will provide refreshments for informal networking after the seminar.

Dr Anja Shortland is a Reader in Political Economy at King’s College London. Anja was an Engineering and Economics undergraduate at Oxford University and did her Masters and PhD in International Relations at LSE. Before joining King’s, she worked as a lecturer in Economics at Leicester, a Reader in Economics at Brunel University and as a consultant to the World Bank. Anja’s research broadly falls into three categories: 1) the economics of crime, 2) informal governance, and 3) civil conflict. She is currently working on the topic of kidnap for ransom, examining who kidnaps and why, how ransoms are negotiated and kidnaps resolved, and who provides the governance for this tricky market. She has published widely on the issue of maritime piracy and co-authored the 2013 World Bank Policy Report: “The Pirates of Somalia: Ending the Threat; Rebuilding a Nation.”

Seminar Overview

The intersection between the formal and criminal economies presents a range of intractable coordination and enforcement problems. Who orders and facilitates the interactions between private, legal entities and criminals (potentially) engaged in kidnap for ransom? Dr Shortland analyses the contracts, protocols, norms, and agencies created by insurers to govern this unusual market. Stringent insurance contracts, effective security measures and orderly resolutions create a profitable market for kidnap insurance. Underwriters manage moral hazard and adverse selection. Business risk consultancies minimise the kidnapping of insured workers, high net-worth individuals, and travellers. Crisis responders ensure that hostages are treated well, keep ransoms moderate and stable, and discourage kidnappers from reneging on agreed ransoms. The state, private sector and mafias incentivise co-operation and enforce contracts. Understanding this complex polycentric governance architecture is crucial for remedying current trends in “terrorist” kidnap for ransom.

Review: Wildlife trafficking and its security implications

uctzhid24 October 2016

Last week, we were delighted to have Cathy Haenlein, Research Fellow from the RUSI National Security and Resilience Group Studies, as an OCRN guest speaker. Her talk provided an insight about how wildlife trafficking has been evolving throughout the last years and the different response approaches adopted by countries and international organisations.

Wildlife trafficking is becoming a serious issue across the world and a lucrative criminal activity. Cathy explained there is a lack of consensus and consistency within the legal definition, for instance, it is not clear what are the species included. Hence, the terminology used is imprecise and the dimensions of this activity are insufficiently understood.

Despite the gravity of the threat affecting a vast range of species, wildlife trafficking is not considered a security threat or priority for governments. Three narratives linking security threats to wildlife trafficking: terrorism, organised crime and human security.

Wildlife trafficking is part of organised crime activities as it embeds complex operations, using high-volume transportation and the participation of different actors in the supply chain. It is known that East Africa has source and transit countries for wildlife illegal activities. International organisations such as Interpol have identified kingpins and large shipments have been seized in the region.

Another aspect to point out is that this type of crime faces several challenges for doing research (how to measure it or to get data) as well as prosecution (the role of corruption). However, our expert suggested different responses that might help to develop effective strategies such as community engagement; law enforcement, demand reduction and the identification of money flows.

In the case of terrorism, there is an alleged involvement of al-Shabaab with ivory illicit trade and poaching elephants in Africa. Nevertheless, our expert made the caveat of an overstated discourse regarding the role of terrorism in wildlife trafficking as there is not sufficient evidence suggesting this nexus.

Currently, RUSI is working on a research project and training programme in Kenya and Tanzania funded by the UK Government focused on tracking the illicit funds from illegal wildlife trade. Also, they are undertaking a research programme on the security dimensions of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in collaboration with The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The views expressed in this blog post are the authors own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the UCL Organised Crime Research Network.