Book Review: ‘Merchants of Men’ by Loretta Napoleoni

Merchants of Men: How Kidnapping, Ransom and Trafficking Funds Terrorism and ISIS by Italian author Loretta Napoleoni takes readers on a global journey of the growing phenomenon of ‘criminal jihadism’ that has becomes a reality of the 21st century.

Tracing the origin of jihadi kidnapping to the Sahel, Napoleoni points the root cause to the United States’ PATRIOT Act, legislation passed in the aftermath of 9/11 that gave the U.S. government a new range of powers including surveillance and tracking global transactions utilising the U.S. dollar. In response, Latin American drug producers, European organised crime, and African traffickers came together and paved the way for a new wave of crimes in an unprecedented scope.

The author highlights how the kidnapping model first pioneered by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which took criminal conduct and sought to give it a veneer of respectability through the guise of jihad, was quickly copied by similar groups across the globe. Particularly interesting is the regional characteristics these global phenomena take form. Somali piracy grew out of the local fishing communities that have existed for centuries while the Taliban’s use of negotiation involves prisoner exchanges.

The book offers insights on the practical components involved in kidnappings. More than just negotiating with terrorists, which western governments claim they don’t do, those that are kidnapped are indeed ranked in value with soldiers and aid workers at the top and with some nationalities valued more than others. On the jihadi side, similar calculations are made but also show tremendous skill in understanding public opinion and media manipulation while evaluating the shock value of beheadings as at times greater than the monetary value gained, as ISIS most notably demonstrated in the summer of 2014.

Napoleoni leaves the reader with many sobering lessons. She deconstructs the ‘mythology of western hostages’ whereby ‘Western governments portray all hostages as heroes, especially if they wear a uniform.’ Oftentimes, particularly those taken in Syria, are naive with little understanding of the true risks involved in entering a warzone as dangerous as those in the Middle East. Youthful idealism, which can take the shape of wanting to report on the ground or to work as an aid worker despite little to no professional training or institutional support, can be a particularly dangerous quality that has cost many their liberty and, in the worst cases, their lives.

Coupled with this outlook, the book is replete with condemnations with plenty to go around. Among those judged guilty are the media who, in the age of dwindling newspaper sales and growing internet competition, have closed down their Middle East bureaus and instead replaced them with freelancers who take greater risks than ever before, risks that establishment media would never take itself, while paying miserly for these articles, few of which end up in the news anyways. Fellow culprits identified by Napoleoni are politicians, guilty for the destabilisation of numerous states through western interventions, and globalisation, heralded by some as a triumph while destroying communities and thereby paving the way for criminals to flourish. Even perceived saints, such as those paid to house and feed migrants and refugees, are often cashing large checks while big business is benefiting from the inflow of low-wage labour.

Despite being an interesting read, it is not without faults. Prime among these is the author’s reliance on anecdotal evidence. Grand claims, such as that Italy pays the most for its hostages, are simply argued on the basis of a handful of examples while rigorous statistical comparisons are lacking. Though the use of anonymous sources, such as negotiators acting as middlemen between western governments and corporations on the one hand and criminal gangs and terrorists on the other, is understandable due to the sensitive nature of the subject, it still leaves much to be desired.

Unlike many of her colleagues, however, Napoleoni deserves praise for reminding readers of the underlying roots that enable kidnappings to take hold as an economic model. Somalia, a victim of Cold War weapons proliferation and abandonment following the Battle of Mogadishu (more commonly known as Black Hawk Down), has since seen its once-plentiful waters become overfished by multinational corporations that have left the local community further impoverished. Nonetheless, the author could have and should have gone further.

Such limitations, however, ought not to dissuade one from picking up what is a fascinating, engaging, and important read to get a glimpse of this dark underworld.

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Published by the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENAF) in Cambridge, England.

ISSN 2634-3940 (Print)


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