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Is Somalia the world’s new hostage crisis?

That Somali pirates are a mess for international security is no open question. But has anyone else noticed that this has quickly become one of the world’s worst hostage situations? 260 crewman are now held on 16 ships, the International Maritime Organization reports. For some comparison — rebels in Colombia are thought to hold about ...

That Somali pirates are a mess for international security is no open question. But has anyone else noticed that this has quickly become one of the world’s worst hostage situations?

260 crewman are now held on 16 ships, the International Maritime Organization reports. For some comparison — rebels in Colombia are thought to hold about 700 captives. But unlike Colombia, Somalia’s rate of capture seems to be on the rise. 

If this is a hostage crisis, the logic of the situation changes. For now, the hostages are treated well; they’re not harmed so long as ransom is paid. In fact, Somali captors have been rigorous about affirming the hostages’ safety time and time again so as to assure they receive payment. 

But what if the payment motive runs away, as it often does when kidnapping for ransom becomes a little bit too succesful? I saw that happen on the other coast of Africa, in Nigeria, reporting last year. Rebels there began taking oil workers hostage in protest of percieved inequity in the country’s distribution of petrol wealth. But aside from a political point, the hostage-taking produced a steady stream of revenue (oil companies often — if not always — paid).

All too quicky, the discipline broke down. More and more criminal gangs lept in for a cut of the prize. With more profiteers seeking booty, the kidnap targets broadened — not just oil workers, but local politicians, families of prominent persons, and pretty much anyone who looked like they were worth a cent. Kidnapping there is no longer a political problem; it’s a criminal one.

The key, in Somalia, would be to figure out how to stop all this now — while groups are still disciplined, and organized syndicates call the shots. As soon as that order disintegrates, the numerous players will be impossible to track down and disarm. The world will have to work fast. 

Unfortunately, the tactics will have to differ from those proven to work on land. President Alvaro Uribe has made headway in cutting kidnappings in Colombia by putting an armed government presence in every corner of his country. This is just not possible at sea.

Combatting Somali kidnappers will take serious strategic thinking — but perhaps framing it as a hostage crisis would be a good start. 

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