CATF Reports May 12, 2016, 3:43pm


Since worldwide crude oil prices began dropping over a year ago, speculation has mounted over what ISIS and other extremists and terrorists would do with the oil it commandeered from occupied fields in Iraq and elsewhere. One traditional source of illegal revenue is kidnapping and that is just what ISIS has begun to exploit, now targeting sailors on vessels rather than pirating the vessels themselves.

Intelligence reports cite growing activity of extremist groups and their fractured offshoots, particularly in West Africa. There, an oil industry NGO estimates combined costs of piracy and kidnapping  in the Gulf of Guinea at almost $720 million, with single ransoms paid to release kidnapped victims as high as $400,000. In a declining oil market, kidnapping offers clear advantages over oil theft which entails arranging cumbersome black market sales. In contrast, kidnapping requires fewer steps, plus the fear of execution of victims is a more palpable threat than the loss of insured cargo.

A 2014 BBC breakdown of estimates of annual income and sources of jihadi financing suggests the relative importance of kidnappings to other forms of revenue - arguably more popular but likely to be in decline. Kidnapping for ransom was the major source of funding for Boko Haram in 2014 along with traditional fundraising activities. Al-Nusra Front, as well, has notoriously exploited kidnapping for ransom as a strategy to channel financial support from foreign governments - Qatar in primis.

Placed in historical perspective, the terrorists who resort to kidnapping are not crafting an evolutionary trend, but rather, are returning to the very origins of extremist fundraising. The classic text on political and religious rebellions, Primitive Rebels by Eric Hobsbawm, argues that penniless peasants armed with only fear on their side began kidnapping wealthy landowners to support their nascent and often ideologically confused rebellions against occupiers.

According to the explanation of a contemporary political analyst, Theodore Gur, a critical shift in utilitarian methods occurs when the need to strike fear in the minds of victims’ families collides with the mass unpopularity of their ideological cause - which clearly occurs in the cases of Boko Haram and ISIS. In response, the leaders shift from isolated fear to widespread terrorism so they can continue to extract ransoms even though their cause remains unpopular and may even - among large segments of the population - grow despised.

Responsible nations, starting with constitutional democracies, have precious few alternatives for dealing with terrorist kidnappings as families and businesses frequently break ranks with state policies prohibiting payments to the abductors. Other than continuing to target rebel leaders with drone and other lethal strikes, counterterrorism efforts have few realistic options in addition to hope for an increase in the price of lucrative commodities like oil.            

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