The news media focuses primarily on kidnapping cases involving high-profile targets such as captured journalists and soldiers, high-net-worth individuals, and children.
However, sensational depictions in film and television have created a popular perception of kidnapping that is often at odds with the reality. Kidnaps-for-ransom happen every day around the world, with rates influenced by geography, conflict, and political, economic, and social issues. Many cases go unreported and unnoticed outside their local setting.
In some parts of the world, law enforcement and security services are too ineffective to properly guide kidnap victims to a safe resolution. Eager to project strength, and frequently lacking effective training in how to peacefully resolve the situation, security forces often prioritize tactical interventions that may jeopardize the lives of the victims. And, in rare cases, they have been found to be complicit in the kidnapping.
It is into this space that third-party actors and private sector organizations can step in to offer support and assist in securing the safe release of the victim. Otherwise, absent advisory and duty-of-care structures compound the trauma of the ordeal for victims and their families. Structure provided by experts can help guide financial negotiations, manage family and employer liaisons, and arrange post-incident support, such as counseling or medical care. There may also be jurisdictional conflicts that preclude victims from getting the full support of their home or host country, or governments could simply be unable or unwilling to provide consular or legal support abroad.
Debunking the common myths surrounding kidnap-for-ransom enables a clear understanding of where there is an opening for private sector engagement and where third-party support is most required.
Although there is a common perception that militant groups carry out a large proportion of kidnaps, data from global risk consultancy Control Risks shows that only 14 percent of the kidnapping incidents that took place worldwide last year involved these groups.
This is despite the concerted kidnapping activity accompanying insecurity in places such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria, attributed particularly to ISIS, as well as renewed kidnapping activity by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahel region and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines.
Instead, some 85 percent of the kidnaps recorded this year by Control Risks were perpetrated by criminal elements such as organized networks, small gangs, or individuals. These are not exclusive, with current or former members of militant groups sometimes using their resources to carry out kidnaps-for-ransom purely for personal financial gain.
Corporate security managers considering their organization’s exposure to kidnap risk at home and overseas often approach the issue with their employees’ specific profile in mind.
While managers may assume that a foreign or Western employee is more likely to be targeted in higher-risk regions abroad, this is not borne out by Control Risks’ kidnapping data, which shows that 97 percent of all kidnaps last year involved local victims. Furthermore, the professionals or businesspeople among those victims represented 54 different industries and were targeted in 77 different countries, illustrating the pervasiveness of the threat and lack of focus on a limited spectrum of sectors.
There are local nuances to the way in which kidnappers target victims in every state or province in a given country—the kidnapping group’s capability and the general security environment largely dictate target selection. Kidnappers often take into consideration the victim’s apparent wealth to draw a high ransom, the abduction’s chance of success, and other aspects of the victim’s profile.
Wealth. Criminals who make their living from kidnapping want to maximize the income from each abduction. Individuals employed by multinational companies or in high-revenue sectors might attract the attention of kidnappers because they appear to be wealthy in the local context. Kidnappers will make assumptions about a potential victim’s social and economic standing based on simple things, such as material displays of wealth like new vehicles, whether they live in a wealthy suburb, or if their children go to a fee-paying school, for example.
Alternatively, they may have insider information. A fashion heiress kidnapped in Hong Kong in April 2015, for instance, was targeted after one of the suspects carried out renovations of the property and noticed the presence of luxury cars and goods. In another case in Nigeria in 2015, a large wedding celebration hosted by the victim was enough to prove his financial value to the kidnappers, who abducted him within the month.
Risk. Having selected a target, the kidnappers could put the potential victim under surveillance to ascertain any weaknesses in his or her security. The simplest option is always to abduct the victims while they are in the open. Those who have a predictable daily routine are easy to target because the kidnappers know when and where they will be traveling. The daily commute, school run, or other regular travel can give kidnappers a variety of options.
Control Risks’ data shows that abductions most commonly occur during a routine journey to or from work, school, or home, with 35 percent of all kidnaps in 2016 taking place at this time. In southern Nigeria, for instance, kidnappers frequently strike on Sundays when families travel to and from church services at a regular time and are vulnerable in transit.
Nevertheless, kidnappers can often be deterred by even rudimentary security provisions. Anything that makes the abduction more difficult may convince them to move on to a new target.
Profiling. In some places, criminally motivated kidnappers are more likely to target local junior or middle management employees than CEOs or foreigners in the corporate context. The calculation is that, while the latter would probably yield a higher ransom, the increased risk of arrest that follows the abduction of a high-profile figure could outweigh the potential financial benefit.
However, foreign nationals are also often harder to abduct because those present in higher-risk areas generally employ more stringent security precautions and represent a much smaller slice of the population.
In other regions, usually those prone to militancy, the victim’s unique profile will not act as a deterrent, and foreigners are often the most highly sought captives. Some groups have significant capability to kidnap high-profile victims and, by taking advantage of difficult terrain and ungoverned spaces, can hold them for long periods without fear of arrest while they negotiate a ransom.
Indeed, for some of these kidnappers, increased attention, both from the government and the media, is part of their motivation to kidnap a high-profile victim for leverage and propaganda purposes.
When preplanning an abduction, kidnappers look for an easy means of escape from the immediate vicinity of the abduction and a viable safe space for the period of captivity.
The partition of Mali in 2012 and the accompanying establishment of operating space for jihadist groups in the remote northern half of the country, for instance, emboldened and enabled AQIM to significantly ramp up its kidnapping activity. The group and its affiliates operating in the western Sahel have since carried out several high-profile kidnaps of foreign nationals, including in northern Burkina Faso and Niger, within a day’s drive of safe zones in northern Mali.
The porous border and weak security presence in the area create a permissive climate in which to conduct operations, and afford AQIM and its satellite groups the time and space to plan kidnaps. In 2016 alone, at least three separate kidnaps targeting foreign nationals and launched from northern Mali were attributed to the network, including that of an Australian couple in northern Burkina Faso last January and an American aid worker in Niger in October.
In an opportunistic abduction, the targeting process is accelerated. A typical method is to set up a roadblock and screen victims as they drive through. The kidnappers will make snap assumptions about the victims’ wealth based on the car they are driving and whether they have a driver.
They can then further question the victims and search the vehicle for confirmation of their wealth. Often people will carry some detail of their employment, such as an identity or access card, that might alert the kidnappers to their potential worth. Visibly branded vehicles, particularly in remote or poor areas, indicate that the occupants may have a higher comparative income or that there is a chance their employer would be willing to pay a ransom for their freedom, increasing the risk.
Opportunistic, ambush-style abductions are particularly common in the eastern provinces of Congo (DRC)—for example. In North Kivu province—home to a plethora of armed groups, including Rwandan rebels, local militias, and army defectors—almost all kidnaps take place at improvised roadblocks and fake checkpoints, and they frequently target convoys of vehicles. More than half of all kidnaps recorded in Congo take place in the province. Many target nongovernmental organizations and other organizations with projects in the hinterland, including construction and telecommunications firms.
While a ransom is not limited to a financial payment to release the victims, financial demands are most commonly made to the victims’ families or employers and can also extend to the victims’ national government or the victims themselves.
The type of ransom sought can vary greatly depending on the kidnapper’s profile—for example, militant groups often take hostages with the intention of trading them for group members in custody in a prisoner exchange. They have also been known to make other demands, such as a cessation of drone strikes or the withdrawal of enemy troops.
In a January 2016 hostage video featuring a Swiss missionary kidnapped from her residence in Timbuktu, for example, an al Qaeda–linked group specifically demanded the release of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Hadi, a militant on trial at the international criminal court in Brussels for ordering the destruction of ancient monuments and shrines in the city during its occupation by Islamist militants in 2012. Other armed groups routinely include in their demands materials useful for their future operations, such as satellite telephones, foodstuffs, vehicles, and weapons.
Sometimes less-straightforward concessions are demanded. Kidnapping is occasionally used as a last resort in cases of industrial action or as a result of a personal, business, or criminal dispute in which one party is kidnapped to compel them to pay a debt or agree to some stipulation for their release.
Control Risks has recorded several cases in Asia where kidnap is used to apply pressure on a company or vendor; these often revolve around contracting. In one 2013 case in India, for example, employees of a company kidnapped a junior staff member at another company to compel his employer to pay them money that was unforthcoming but contractually owed.
In China, the kidnap or detention of executives is a relatively common way for employees to extract concessions from their employers during labor unrest or disputes. In one such case in 2013, Chinese factory workers held their U.S. manager for five days amid a dispute over severance pay.
Express and Virtual Kidnappings
Classic kidnap-for-ransom is not the only crime that companies or security managers need to consider when thinking about risks to their staff, nor is it the sole extortive crime covered by insurance policies. New forms of extortive crime have accompanied the advent of new technology. These include cyber extortion, virtual kidnapping, and express kidnapping.
Virtual kidnapping is the name given to a form of extortion that emerged in Latin America in 2004 and has since spread to many parts of the world. Notably, it has become increasingly common in Asia, particularly China.
In a virtual kidnap, a criminal typically contacts a family and claims to have abducted one of their loved ones. The criminal threatens to harm or kill the victim if a ransom is not paid. In fact, the supposed victim of a virtual kidnap is never actually held captive, but may have been forced to cooperate with the criminals or may be completely unaware of the incident.
In many cases in Mexico, the alleged kidnap victims are contacted by the extortionists and forced to isolate themselves by checking into a hotel or another location, and remaining there until told to leave.
In most countries, the crime affects local nationals, but in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, Spanish-speaking business travelers are increasingly falling victim to the crime. Knowledge of the prevalence of this crime, and adequate preparation and training for employees who travel to areas where it is common, are crucial to mitigating the financial risk to both the individual and the company.
Express kidnapping generally involves the abduction of a victim who is forced, under threat of injury or death, to withdraw funds from ATMs. It is generally opportunistic and carried out by individuals or small, dedicated, and well-organized gangs that are often armed.
In Mexico, for example, they frequently use taxis to carry out kidnaps, posing as taxi drivers to rob the passenger. The average gain made by an express kidnapper is relatively small and the duration of captivity is generally between two and four hours. Kidnappers are attracted to express kidnapping because it allows them to avoid protracted negotiations with the victims’ families, involves little risk, and is a quick way of making money.
Foreign nationals are a favored target for express kidnappers because of their presumed wealth and the assumption that they are less likely to remain in the area during a police investigation or be able to identify the offenders. In countries like Brazil, Ecuador, and Tanzania, express kidnapping has overtaken traditional kidnapping-for-ransom.
Response and Insurance
Most reputable insurance companies that offer kidnap-for-ransom insurance have an exclusive partnership with a specialist response firm, guaranteeing their clients immediate access to expert consultants and advice in a crisis incident.
Although insurance companies offering kidnap-for-ransom coverage and private response companies have been working hand-in-hand for decades, the confidentiality inherent in the business precludes transparency around the specifics of the insurers’ role and the services the responders provide.
Good responders are defined by their independence and are trusted by their insurance partner to work towards the best possible outcome in each kidnap: the safe and timely release of the victim. It is imperative that the insurer maintains a reputation as a reliable provider, further incentivizing the safe release of a victim or successful resolution of the case. The role of the insurer should simply be to reimburse costs and expenses the responder incurs during the process of supporting and advising the policyholder. Kidnap-for-ransom policies sold by leading insurers can also include coverage for extortion, threats, missing persons, and wrongful detention cases.
Experienced responders can provide invaluable support to the victims, their families, and their employers, particularly in places where law enforcement and crisis management institutions are unequipped or under-resourced. Above all, the private responder has an obligation to respect the wishes of the victim, their family, or the employer, and a duty to provide them with the best possible advice and course of action. The client is free to take or ignore that advice and is always the final decision maker. Responsible responders will never act unilaterally outside the course of action agreed with the client, or outside the law.
Kidnap-for-ransom is not confined to the world’s most dangerous locations or perpetrated principally by jihadis or guerrillas, nor does it predominantly target those wealthy enough to pay a large ransom.
The crime is constantly evolving and adapting to the changing security environment, and security professionals must understand the nuances and risks involved for all forms of kidnap and extortive crime to practice successful mitigation.
Sebastian Boe is a special risks analyst responsible for conducting research and analysis on kidnapping and extortion trends in Africa within Control Risks’ Response department.