To negotiate or not to negotiate…


At least 185 people are currently held hostage by terrorists. Should we negotiate (and pay) or effectively condemn these people to years of captivity and possibly violent death?

If you are a brother, mother or otherwise related to a hostage your answer is likely to be “pay!”. If you’re wealthy you might embark on plans to bring the release about yourself.

If you are unrelated and learn about the terrible situation for a given hostage, you’re most likely to answer “no”. Of the many reasons given, these three takes the lions share:

  • extortion attempts by terrorists, or anyone really, should be met with a firm no and backed up by adequate force. Going into negotiations with criminals demanding ransom should be used as a stall tactic while “other plans” are drawn up and brought to execution.
  • paying is the worst that can be done since it provides resources to the enemy (sometimes considerable in size) that will then later be used in more crimes and eventually could end up killing or maiming many more than was freed be the ransom.
  • paying will be an incitement to repeat the fund-raising experience and – since it cannot be kept secret – invite other criminal groups to try their hand too.

If you are in government things are quite a bit more complicated. A catch-22 situation really. You must be seen to stand strong against extortions and any other form of coercion attempts (so no negotiations and certainly no payments) but at the same time take measures to right the wrong. The trouble with that part is that in spite of all the military gadgetry available and barracks full of units with “special” somewhere in their designation, no commander can be found who says “it can be done” (without the need for body bags for the hostages or expensive “special” grunts)….

The terrorists, on the other hand, do not hold all the cards either. A dead hostage is worth zero. Less even, since there is a real risk of repercussions later on (Governments in this sort of situations have a very good memory – unlike when their members need help recalling their campaign promises). And there is this dastard issue of all them satellites and drones whizzing past overhead day and night. You also have to keep your excited young rebels from gang-raping any of the female assets because that would seriously degrade the negotiation position in future repeat actions.

The ICC Commercial Crime Services reports on crimes world-wide affecting commerce. In relation to hostage taking, the ICC-CCS keep tabs on maritime piracy – an activity that most often involves kidnapping and hostage situations. And as of early 2013 the tally stands at 127 people currently being held hostage, 42 for more than two years. In 2012 a total of 297 attacks were recorded resulting in twenty-six people kidnapped and six killed. However, that bottom line hides a whooping 585 people being held hostage at some point during the year.

The ICC-CCS do not report on what ransoms were paid, by whom or to which group. However, it doesn’t take a university degree to do some pretty mind numbing back-of-the-envelope math: 585 hostages minus 26 still kept = 559 freed. Now let’s say that 25% were freed through the use of force or other means – which we will account as “no payment” … a zero (although of course such interventions are far from being gratis). That leaves roughly 420 where it is safe to assume some kind of payment was transacted. If we guess that a hostage is worth US$ 100k as a minimum and perhaps as much as US$ 1M, we have a “hostage market” with a size between US$ 42M and 420M (that’s close to half a billion!). To put these figures in perspective it should be noted that France, in the past, has been rumored to pay in the low tens of millions per hostage. According to Red24, payouts for hostages in the Shael region often exceeds US$ 1M. And finally we’ve completely ignored the massive costs accrued by loss of cargo (or having to buy that back as well) and in some cases complete loss of the vessel.

Turning away from the dangers of the shores, “IntelCenter” – a private outfit based in Washington D.C. – reports on “high profile hostages” currently being held. They offer a nice interactive map, claimed to be updated daily. Their count as of late February 2013 stands at 58. France leads the table with 15 of its citizens in captivity, followed by the US with 9. Some of the hostages have been held since 2003!

It is worth noting the poor state of available data. For example, nowhere in the 84 page ICC-CCS report for 2012 are the hostages tallied up by nationality. And IntelCenter provides no definition of what constitutes a “high profile” hostage. The UN – apparently (help much appreciated) – keeps no official records on kidnappings, current hostage situations or any of the like. But despite the UN’s notoriously thick velvet gloves, perhaps this potato may just be a tad too hot to handle?

But regardless of the actual numbers, the question remains: What to do about it? Ignore the matter altogether (pretty much impossible), negotiate and eventually pay (with nasty side-effects down the road) or intervene forcefully (remember to bring body bags)?

Or is it possible to imagine a fourth option: that of bringing progress about in the cancerous regions such that people have something to loose?

People with things and access to services they treasure will invariably become hostile to anything and anybody with suggestions that threatens such advantages. Once a majority have gotten their first half-decent dentistry job done, taken a real shower and not sent anyone hungry to bed for a whole month, radicals with degenerated ideas will find it harder to recruit and operate. Much harder.

It therefore seems to me the real question is: “What does it take for us in the most developed nations to abandon our new-age colonialism in which we spend considerably less on law and order than before but continue to ruthlessly exploit both natural and human resources”. All while turning a blind eye to the rampant overt corruption that certainly figures among the root causes of clan-based tension and conflicts – which in turn creates the ripe soil cultivated by radical fundamentalists.

Or is the hard-on we get from this unchecked plunder just too strong for us to control?


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