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The Hannibal Directive and the Dark Politics of Hostages
From rogue governments to terrorist organizations and pirates, a new political economy of kidnapping, hostages, and ransom payments has emerged. Here's how it works.
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Note: This is a sensitive time to be writing about hostages, as hundreds of Israeli civilians are being held by Hamas. In writing this edition, I hope to illuminate how these awful dynamics work, not be insensitive to the ongoing horrors in the Middle East. I hope you understand.
The Hannibal Directive
More than 2,000 years ago, around 183 BC, Hannibal, the fearsome Carthaginian general, found himself surrounded by Roman soldiers. There was to be no escape. According to the Roman historian Livy, the general made the choice that a noble death was better than being captured by the enemy. He ingested poison, depriving the Romans of a valuable hostage.
Two millennia later, an Israeli mental patient named Yakir Ben-Melech tried to jump a security fence to make his way into the Gaza Strip. Mentally unwell, Ben-Melech reportedly believed that he could successfully negotiate for the release of a captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was being held hostage by Hamas.
Ben-Melech was shot dead by Israeli forces. While the official rationale given was that he was mistakenly identified as a terrorist, there has been considerable speculation that another explanation may be the correct one: that Ben-Melech was deliberately killed as part of Israel’s controversial Hannibal Directive—a now-defunct policy in which the government authorized any means necessary, including deadly force with deliberate friendly fire, to prevent the abduction of Israeli hostages.
As Eyal Weizman noted recently in the London Review of Books:
In 1999, Shaul Mofaz, the then chief of the general staff, explained the [Hannibal] policy: ‘With all the pain that saying this entails, an abducted soldier, in contrast to a soldier who has been killed, is a national problem.’
Officially, the Directive’s name is said to be a coincidence, a word plucked randomly by an algorithm that selects codenames for operations. But there is a rather striking coincidence between the program and its namesake, as both prefer death to capture.
The Long History of Hostage Politics
Humans have been taking hostages basically forever, but it became a formal ritualized mechanism of diplomacy in ancient China. During the Eastern Zhou period (771-256 BC), two states would exchange “hostage sons,” who were usually princes. The idea was that each side would have a hostage, guaranteeing that neither side would renege on their agreements. Hostages, paradoxically, became an effective tool to enforce contracts and build trust.
However, it wasn’t always so rosy. In ancient Rome, Lactantius (who may have embellished events) wrote of the disturbing fate of the emperor Valerian in the third century AD. Valerian was reportedly captured and taken hostage after losing a battle. The king who held him captive, Shapur I, was said to have humiliated his hostage, using the fallen emperor as a human foot stool when he needed to mount his horse, before allegedly making Valerian drink molten gold (which somewhat undermined his plans to escape and mount a royal comeback).
1,500 years later, in the United States, hostage-taking provides the origin story of the US Department of the Navy, which was established to combat Barbary Pirates from North Africa. The pirates from Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis began kidnapping American sailors after the Revolutionary War.
Congress allocated an enormous sum for the time—$800,000—as tribute to get the Americans back, but many, including Thomas Jefferson, worried that such payments would just encourage further hostage-taking. Upon being elected the third US president, Jefferson took a hard line against the pirates, leading to the First Barbary War, which ended with several decisive naval battles, but still more ransom money exchanged hands at the end of hostilities.
In recent times, hostage-taking has become more routine, more systemic, and more carefully managed through an intricate dance that can best be described by game theory and a labyrinthine network of kidnap insurance brokers, backchannel negotiators, and shadowy financial exchanges.
As Anja Shortland, professor political economy at King’s College London and author of Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business, explains:
“Every year, thousands of people are kidnapped to be ransomed back to their families, employers, or governments. The trade in human lives is a well-established business in many areas of the world and practised by criminals, rebels, and terrorists alike.”
So, how did we get here—and how does the modern system of hostage politics work?
The Darkest Exchange Rate
On July 23rd, 1968, a Boeing 707 with 38 passengers and 10 crew members took off from Rome. The plane, an El Al airliner, was en route to Israel. As soon as the flight reached cruising altitude, three armed men burst into the cockpit and attacked the pilot, firing a single warning shot as they commandeered the aircraft. For anyone considering a moment of bravery, one of the attackers brandished a live grenade in the main cabin, making clear that if he went down, the whole plane would too.
The longest hijacking of a commercial flight in history had begun—ushering in a new era of international hostage taking.
The hijackers were from a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group—known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP. They diverted the plane to Algiers and, upon arrival, separated the Israelis from the non-Israelis. A few days later, the hijackers released ten women and children, leaving ten crew members and twelve Israeli passengers in the hands of the terrorists.
For the PFLP, they had already scored an important victory. As George Habash, the group’s Christian revolutionary leader boasted: “The world is talking about us.”
Over forty days of backchannel negotiations, using the Italian government as a go-between, negotiators finally struck a deal: the 22 hostages would be freed in exchange for 16 convicted Arab prisoners. Nobody was killed.
But it soon became clear that Israeli hostages could be traded for a much higher “exchange rate.” By 2006, when the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner and brought to Gaza, the terms agreed after five years held in captivity were radically different: one Israeli soldier was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. How and why did it change so abruptly?
Kidnapping for ransom is now a widespread scourge of the modern world, both in terms of international terrorism and rogue state geopolitics.
To understand the complex political economy and geopolitics around hostage-taking, we need to resolve the following dilemmas:
How do kidnappers/terrorists and negotiators determine a price for the safe return of the hostage?
Why is it the case that the best outcomes tend to happen when an insurance company—not a government—is the one negotiating with the pirates or terrorists or criminal gangs who are holding a hostage captive?
How do you actually pay, when no bank will touch any payments and governments don’t want to be seen as negotiating with terrorists/pirates, etc.?
Why are roughly 90 percent of hostages returned alive—and what affects the chances of survival?
The Price of a Human Life
Let’s start by clearing up a common misconception: you don’t hear about the majority of kidnap for ransom incidents because they are often quietly resolved—when an employer, an insurance broker, or a family pays for the release of someone working in a dangerous area who is taken simply as a means to extract monetary value. (The ongoing hostage crisis with Hamas, or the 1979 American hostage crisis in Iran are not representative cases of the kidnap-for-ransom business; they’re highly visible outliers).
Eight out of ten hostages are held captive for less than a week. An unfortunate four percent are held for more than a month, and on the end of that long tail, hostages can be detained for years. During the detention, the hostage-takers are trying to determine the maximum possible “price” (sometimes financial, sometimes not) that they can receive in exchange for the hostage being safely returned.
This is what Shortland calls “a tricky trade,” which draws on game theory. Both parties are operating with imperfect information—the kidnappers/terrorists don’t know how much potential money is available (if negotiating with a family/business) or how many geopolitical concessions might be possible (if negotiating with a government).
On the other side, those negotiating for the release of the hostage are trying to ensure the lowest possible price, while being careful not to push the hostage-takers into doing something rash, such as harming the hostage.
There are three key factors that will generally lead to a lower price for a hostage.
If the kidnappers believe that any available financial resources are limited.
If the kidnappers are engaging in a “repeated game” with the same negotiating partner, rather than viewing the exchange as a “one-off” incident.
If the negotiation doesn’t involve a government.
When I spoke to Shortland a few years ago, she explained it like this:
“The way a ransom negotiation works is that the kidnappers will try and squeeze the towel dry. But they don't know what the towel is. It could be a very soggy bath sheet, or it could just be a fairly dry face cloth. So if you give them the family to squeeze dry, then you've already managed the expectations of the kidnappers.
You don't want the hostage to tell their kidnappers: ‘I'm insured for a million’ because that is the equivalent of holding out a big soggy bath sheet that will be squeezed until that particular threshold is reached.
This creates the strange paradox in which the safest thing for a potential hostage is to not know that they have ransom insurance. If they know, they will tell their captors, who will then push for the maximum possible concession—especially if they know that the “family member” on the other end of the phone line is actually a negotiator who works for, say, the insurance company Lloyd’s of London.
However, the benefit of having an insurance company involved is that they end up being a bit like a “repeat customer,” in which the hostage-takers start thinking long-term. (In fact, the specialist company Control Risks, had, by 2019, resolved cases involving more than 2,300 hostages in 138 countries).
If the kidnappers/terrorists/pirates engage in a pragmatic negotiation and safely return the hostage, that increases the chances that they will get more future payments from the same broker. Bizarrely, then, the best outcomes tend to happen when hostage-takers see their terrorizing of civilians as a purely financial business, rather than as an isolated moment of glory for a specific ideological cause.
Why It’s Bad News When Governments Get Involved
When governments enter the negotiation—and sometimes they have to—the price usually goes up considerably. That’s partly because the hostage-takers now know that they are dealing with a deep pool of potential concessions (financial or otherwise) and partly because the “repeated game” aspect gets replaced by a mentality of a “one-off” trade.
Unlike Lloyd’s of London, governments are usually only playing the “game” for one round. After the hostage gets out, the game is over. If you’re the French government and a French national gets kidnapped, you’ve got pretty good odds that the next hostage will be a different nationality—it won’t be your problem. But for Lloyd’s or Control Risks, when they’re dealing with people who have been insured against kidnapping, the next hostage is very likely to be their problem. They keep playing the game, over, and over, and over.
Making matters worse, companies that offer ransom insurance have seasoned pros who professionally conduct these sorts of negotiations as part of their day job. Governments, by contrast, often enlist inexperienced bureaucrats who are trying their hand for the first time.
When you add in the fact that insurance companies are often able to operate outside the public eye, whereas governments have the added pressure of headlines and polling, that extra scrutiny provides leverage that the hostage-takers use—to drive the “price” much higher. Shortland points to a case from her research on ransom payments by an Islamist extremist group (Abu Sayyaf) in the Philippines that used to accept relatively low payments to release hostages:
“The ransom level that was established was sustainable—it was less than $100,000. And then you get a government coming in, after Abu Sayyaf was listed as a terrorist organization, and the very next ransom is $5.6 million for two hostages.”
Once a higher price is established, that’s the starting point for future negotiations, so there’s a ratcheting effect—the price often goes up when someone botches a negotiation, but it rarely comes down. (This is why, after the Israeli government exchanged 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one soldier, Hamas is likely demanding huge concessions for the hundreds of civilian hostages they have kidnapped).
But when the “exchange rate” gets particularly high, it creates warped incentives for governments, too. (Eyal Weizman argues that the Israeli government started trying to arbitrarily detain more Palestinian criminals to be used as future bargaining chips in anticipation of future hostage negotiations).
Beyond the price, though, hostage-takers who engage with governments know that they’ve created a political problem, not an economic one. This is often bad news for the hostages, because it’s no longer about straightforward financial extortion, but about ideology and an attempt to humiliate an (often much more powerful) rival.
How to deliver cash, or why a donkey is often your best bet
It’s usually impossible to use a bank transfer to release a hostage: there are all sorts of laws and regulations preventing it, not to mention the fact that pirates and terrorists can’t just waltz into their local Wells Fargo and open an account. Making matters more complicated, straightforward in-person cash transfers are often out of the question, as they expose hostage-takers to the risk of being killed in a military operation (see the film Captain Phillips for a particularly vivid example).
Somali pirates solved this problem by demanding cash drops from light aircraft, which would literally drop bags of cash in waterproof bags onto the ocean next to the hijacked ship, or sometimes, onto the deck of the ship itself. Before the cash was dropped, the pirates would provide proof-of-life guarantees. There are even middlemen who make their careers as being a trusted go-between for rebels, terrorists, pirates, etc. and the outside world. If they ever break their word, their business dries up, so they become trusted through “repeat customers.”
On the private (non-governmental) negotiation side of things, you have to be careful to ensure that you’re not delivering cash in a fancy way. Anja Shortland says that it’s often wise to use, say, a donkey to carry cash into a remote location. Proposing delivery with a private helicopter suggests that the towel hasn’t yet been wrung dry; in other words, you don’t want to make the hostage-takers think they can still squeeze a bit more out of you.
Once the cash changes hands, the question becomes how to release the hostages. If the hostage-takers are repeat players (who hope to make money from future hostages), they have a strong incentive to ensure that the release is done safely and without fanfare. As Shortland explains, with grim matter-of-factness:
Some hostages are pushed out of a car on a remote road or in a busy city street, where they can make their own way to safety. Some are put on a local bus or boat service. Some stakeholders are told where to find their loved ones, perhaps tied to a tree or in a makeshift underground dungeon. Somali pirates just departed from the ships with every valuable that took their fancy, shouting and firing their guns in celebration.
Why hostages die
These dynamics break down when the hostage-taker sees the hostages not as a tool to get-rich-quick, but rather as a geopolitical blow to strike against an adversary (as is likely now the case with Hamas). And sometimes, terror is the point: the organization doesn’t intend to let the hostage go from the beginning. Those negotiations are just theater.
Worse, hostage-takers can use strategic murders to signal their seriousness. By killing some of the hostages, they make their threats more credible during negotiations. As Shortland points out, in a harrowing detail about hostage killings carried out by the terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf, from her book:
Although the ransoms were not publicly disclosed, private hostage negotiators complained bitterly that once again the ransom paid for the survivors did not penalize the kidnappers for murdering two of the original four hostages. ‘Sadly, Abu Sayyaf learned the…lesson that you can kill half the hostages and still receive a record ransom payment. It was disgraceful.
These are the tragically dark dynamics of hostage politics: resolving a short-term emergency in the wrong way can lead to terrible long-term incentives, which actually make it more likely that future hostages will be taken.
As the 21st century comes to be defined by increasingly frequent and visible hostage-taking by state or quasi-state actors (China, Russia, Iran, and Hamas being four recent perpetrators), it is imperative to establish and reinforce international norms that stop this abhorrent behavior rather than accidentally incentivizing it. But to do so requires shrewd negotiation, long-term thinking, and an understanding of the game theory dynamics behind hostage diplomacy.
Human life has intrinsic worth, and it is a basic human right to not be treated like a physical object, used as a bargaining chip in a geopolitical struggle or to extract vast riches from loved ones who just want you to come home safely. We must do everything possible to protect that universal right—and bring innocent people home.
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