"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


split the difference

Two French citizens kidnapped by Islamic extremists in Somalia this week have apparently been separated, with one hostage going to another extremist organization in order to keep everyone happy.

If you've been reading this blog for the last few months, you know that I'm knee-deep in a collaborative project on Somali pirates and their relationship to local governance structures in Puntland. One of the most striking aspects of these pirates' activity is their high degree of rationality and organization. They are by no means controlled by a central organization, but each pirate group has strict codes of behavior and reward systems. It's almost a perfect rational actor model.

While we don't believe that Somali pirates are terrorists or Islamic extremists and think that in fact , the nature of their criminal activity has a lot in common with the way the al-Shabaab extremists operate in the failed state. Both are highly rational, and both are willing to compromise small objectives in order to meet larger goals. For the pirates, this means they might skip boarding a ship from which they expect not to gain a large ransom. For the Islamic extremists, this apparently means that handing off one valuable hostage to another organization is worth the price of not having to fight them as well.

What lessons can we learn from pirates that might be applied to thinking about how to deal with extremists? For one thing, the failure to consider their rational behavior leads to very bad policy decisions. Most Western policy regarding Somali pirates is focused on deterrence through the threat of death or imprisonment. But this ignores the fact that for your average unemployed Puntland male, the chances of being shot by a member of the U.S. Navy are slimmer than those of being shot at home, and the risk is worth the opportunity for a reward that far outweighs all other available alternatives.

For another, we can consider that even though we abhor their violent activities, if Somalia's extremist organizations are rational actors, they have a price. The fact that they are willing to hand over a hostage (who is presumably very well-insured by the kidnapping & ransom insurance industry) means that they will bargain under certain circumstances. We would do well to delve more into what those circumstances might be, with special attention to profit motives. Doing so might not help, but in a situation in which all of our ill-defined policies have thus far failed, it certainly wouldn't hurt.

UPDATE: I misunderstood where the hostages were in the first place before. Sorry about that. They were actually captured and first handed over to Hizbul-Islam, which angered al-Shabaab, to whom Hizbul-Islam then handed over one hostage in order to keep the peace. They have since given al-Shabaab the other French hostage. I still think the point about assuming logic and rationality applies, but it's admittedly much more complicated with al-Shabaab in control of the hostages.


Blogger Alexis said...

Incredibly fascinating!

Friday, July 17, 2009 8:37:00 AM

Anonymous Sister said...

I can't turn my editor brain off, so sorry if this is annoying, but I thought I'd tell you this so you could correct it and then delete this comment: You wrote "mail" instead of "male" in the next-to-last paragraph. But I agree with Alexis that it is fascinating!

Friday, July 17, 2009 11:52:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...


Saturday, July 18, 2009 1:15:00 AM


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