Kidnap for Ransom
By Dave Nicholson
(Australian Security Magazine 2008)
The phone rings at 2am. The voice on the other end is frantic. “We had just
left the meeting when they came from a parked car, smashed something
across Steve‟s head and dragged him into a car. They had machine guns,” the
It‟s not a film or a book … It is real. Its incidence is increasing, and it is
crippling organisations and families for life.
Kidnapping, or the use of illegal force or fraud to carry off or hold a person or
persons for ransom, is a complex (but growing) modus operandi of terrorist
groups, organised criminals and aggrieved individuals.
While it is generally considered that such tactics are on the increase (an
increase that is obviously dramatic and alarming in some regions), there are
intrinsic difficulties in accurately articulating the actual problem, its growth
and the specific cause by region with any continuity.
One reason for this is the often deliberate and sensible strategy of
governments, corporations and insurance consortiums to dilute or withhold
specifics and statistics from the public in an effort to prevent such incidents
occurring, or indeed, the problem escalating.
The figures, in general, are surprising and in some regions very disturbing,
and it is obvious to see how they could be seen as alarming to tourists and
corporations considering in-region opportunities, travelling business persons
or the financial institutions that support operations.
Ransoms alone are a serious financial consideration for those at risk. The
average settlement figure around South East Asia seems to be in the region of
$AUS 500, 000. In Europe it is estimated to be in the region of $AUS 850,
000 and in South America up to $AUS100 million. Furthermore, security,
protection, insurance, legal, evacuation, medical and consultants fees can
quickly escalate with horrific consequences for governments and the business
community as well as victims, families and the negotiating team.
Around 90 percent of all kidnappings (excluding the current Iraq situation)
take place in the countries listed below, though there is evidence suggesting a
significant growth in these incidents in Europe (often associated with
extortion). There is also a general global increase in child abduction.
• Former Soviet Union (FSU)
• South Africa
This list is not exhaustive and remains fluid; however, serious precautions are
clearly required while travelling in these areas.
Kidnap incident objectives vary between the different perpetrator groups.
Primarily the problem area of concern is with those perpetrators whose
objective is extortion or simple financial gain, as opposed to terrorist host age
incidents. Terrorist incidents, in general terms, are an intrinsic component of
a particular style of politically motivated violence with an objective to
influence a far greater audience. The majority of „for ransom‟ perpetrators
operate in a quasi business fashion in the selection of targets likely to attract
high ransoms, the initiation of the incident, captivity, communications,
negotiation, conclusion and post event. This business type modus operandi
brings a level of discipline to some incidents, thus providing a mechanism for
sensible and safe incident resolution by specialist consultants.
As such, of significant importance in these incidents is an understanding of
the region of concern, its likely perpetrators and their method of operation,
history, objectives and tactics. This is the intelligence component of incident
prevention and resolution, a component that all at risk should consider with
This business type operation is widespread and growing as organised gangs,
rebels and some terrorist networks adopt these principles to generate funding
for other illicit activities. The risks for such perpetrators are generally low. The
environments in which they operate are often corrupt and local knowledge of
often difficult terrain makes intervention or arrest unlikely, with only about 10
percent of all kidnap incidents concluding with any form of rescue or arrest.
Clearly the advantages to the kidnappers outbalance any risks, with high
ransoms paid and hostage targets on every corner or in every hotel in most
Negotiation (often a lengthy process) is clearly the safest and most effective
resolution, with research suggesting about 66 percent of victims are released
on ransom payment, only about 15 percent released without payment and
around 10 percent are rescued through some method of intervention.
Obviously, with any incidence of kidnapping, fatalities can occur and as a
result, such incidents are a psychological roller coaster.
To our anguish, kidnapping has become one of the most dangerous and
traumatic threats to any person leaving the comfort and safety of a secure
region. Each kidnapping incident clearly tears at the hearts of families,
companies and individuals while having a significant impact on society in
general. The impact of such trauma and the capacity of individuals and
companies to adapt, manage and cope with such cataclysmic events are crucial
if the risks of long-term effects are to be mitigated.
Of significant note also is the emotional and financial effect on families if the
incident is unresolved in the long term. This greatly disrupts the family
routine, social interaction and the employment capabilities of some families.
Thus, the compensation and after care costs to business or insurance can be
This is of significant importance to kidnap management consultants or
negotiators who should clearly understand the likely psychological and
physical strengths and weaknesses of the victim they are tasked with releasing
or protecting. The issue of protecting individuals is a key component, as in
some instances, intelligence or previous experience suggests a release is
unlikely and to this end the consultant‟s role is to prolong incident and victim
safety while extracting or identifying details to assist with any potential
Any quality consultant or kidnap management organisation should advise
clients on post incident support and recovery as post-traumatic counseling is
likely to be required for extended periods. On this point, it is not only victims
who are likely to need the benefit of such support, but the whole range of
people involved either prior to, during or post incident locally and at a
More recently, some kidnappings have become more complex with the
ramifications of the anonymity provided by technology and the World Wide
Web compounding perpetrator detection, hostage location and frustrating the
human element of negotiations. Furthermore, due to the ubiquitous nature of
the Internet, there are newer, even more unusual targets available to those
wishing to deliver extortion tactics or plan kidnappings.
The ability for criminals to operate in near obscurity has been suggested as a
contributing factor in the increase of organised computer crime in recent
years and accordingly, there is a seamless association and likely trend.
The increased scope and simplified nature of global communications also
increases the risks to citizens of countries previously unaffected by such
Some of those countries without the large sophisticated detection and
enforcement agencies and techniques have responded actively, where
possible, to mitigate the growth of kidnapping incidents, either with support
or with some level of intervention (primarily as a deterrent strategy). There is
a diluted risk to the perpetrators through the reduced chance of detection or
law enforcement intervention.
For kidnap consultants, communication is another significant factor. Most
terrorist and organised crime syndicates operate in a collection of small
groups or cells that are loosely networked into a structure. These are often
spread out over large geographical areas. While this strategy offers a level of
anonymity and possible physical protection, there is an increased need for
communications providing an avenue for interception and detection.
Equally, in remote regions, electronic forms of communication are used to
negotiate with perpetrators. The ability of kidnap consultants to have access to
law enforcement agencies or the local legislative empowerment and the
technical ability to monitor or intercept communications can provide crucial
intelligence, often having a significant effect on the resolution of the incident.
Prevention and precautions
It is, I hope, clear to see how prevention is far more efficient and effective for
individuals and organisations than a post event resolution. Resolution itself is
generally dependent on the level of precautions and prior planning that the
person at risk has undergone.
Certainly organisations or travelling individuals need to understand the risks
and adopt quality active risk management systems. If a kidnap risk is likely
then security awareness training should be provided to those at risk, with
protection services carefully considered, dependent on the region and r isk
Insurance, policy and travel procedures need special security evaluation and
incident management plans should be developed, and tested and accompanied
by incident management training for designated or potential incident
commanders. These precautions are all tools of prevention, but must be
collectively applied strategically and in conjunction with sound intelligence
and information systems if they are to effectively mitigate risks. Local
knowledge is important, though one should not under-estimate the level of
corruption and poor infrastructures of law enforcement evident in many of the
regions where kidnappings occur.
This emphasises even more the need for good security policies and quality
information security. The vetting of staff in local areas is crucial, and any local
vetting agencies or sources themselves require careful vetting via trusted
The type of in-region kidnapping and associated modus operandi needs to be
Pseudo-Marxist rebels in South America and parts of South East Asia
generally operate in a businesslike fashion with high ransom demands and
prolonged incidents; however, any actual serious injury to victims in these
instances is relatively rare.
„Miracle fishing‟ (the mass abduction of locals and business people) is a
common tactic used by such groups, followed by an assessment of the catch
and a „valuation‟ of each victim.
„Express kidnapping‟ is a serious, evolving epidemic in Central America and
parts of Asia, with common criminals abducting everyday people and
demanding much lower ransoms from family members, thus turning over a
high number of victims on a regular basis. Unfortunately, such incidents are
less predictable and the likelihood of injury or death is a greater concern.
„Merchant kidnapping‟ is the targeting of individuals or mass abductions for
assessment and onward selling by common criminals or quasi gangs to the
more disciplined rebels, drug cartels, or terrorist groups often in more remote
The importance of intelligence and an understanding of the perpetrators and
their tactics is a crucial component of prevention and incident management.
Secondary associated incidents are not uncommon with perpetrators targeting
other family or business associates or even members of the kidnap
management team while a kidnap negotiation is under way. This strategy
clearly compounds the incident and seems to often force a reaction to heavy
ransom payments or certainly strengthens the perpetrators‟ position. This
articulates the importance of good security, protection and security awareness
while operating in such incident rich environments.
Once an incident has occurred, the management of that incident becomes the
crucial component to any successful outcome and this, again, depends on the
level of planning and precautions taken.
Incident management plans should be rehearsed and followed. Kidnap
consultants must be able to respond quickly with pre-arranged contracts or
financial retainers set in place. Communications between all parties must be
secure, safe and strategically managed and intelligence on the victims and
perpetrators is crucial.
Business interruption requires consideration, planning and separate
management and the aftercare issues post incident need early consideration.
Evidence is often crucial for insurance, litigation or even criminal
prosecutions and all management advice, decisions and communications need
to be logged to provide a clear audit trail. Of importance in these incidents are
clarity and certainty and ascertaining firm details and evidence of events is
Is the incident as it should be? Is there proof of the incident and the victim‟s
This proof of well being should be maintained throughout negotiations as a
methodology in the bargaining process.
The publicised Kidnap and Ransom term (K&R) „Proof of Life‟ is not sufficient
as a command and control strategy. The objective should be the maintenance
of good health and well being.
The use of, or support from psychologists, can be a useful tool during
kidnapping incidents, especially with post incident evaluations. However, a
level of prudence is required if involving psychologists in the actual command
and control of the incident, especially if they are to offer strategic advice or be
in any way involved with negotiations.
Planning for ransom handover and victim retrieval requires early
consideration with intervention plans for worse case scenarios prepared and
in a state of readiness.
Evacuation post event should be imminent and this requires further planning
especially in regions with poor transport infrastructures.
The whole issue of kidnapping is, it seems, an area of alarming and rapid
The ease with which kidnappings can occur and ransoms paid are int rinsically
associated with a poor understanding of these incidents and a lack of planning
or precautions leading to the escalation some regions have seen.
While it seems unlikely that such occurrences can be mitigated in full, it is
certainly evident that simple planning and precautions can be both effective
and, of course, be the most efficient strategy.
Indeed, with litigation and legislation evolution, companies and governments
may be in breach of contracts, duty of care or health and safety requirements
if they have not acted reasonably to prevent and prepare for such incidents.