Kidnap for ransom: What makes a target?,
by Nicola White.
In 2016, individuals employed in at least 54 different sectors, operating in 77 countries, experienced at first hand the trauma of a kidnap-for-ransom. More often than not, incidents occurred in major cities – exactly the locations where many multinational businesses operate. Understanding what kidnappers look for when selecting targets will allow businesses to protect the employees that are most at risk in 2017.
Criminal kidnapping gangs, rather than terrorist or militant groups, dominate global kidnapping trends, carrying out more than 80% of abductions each year. Their main aim is to make money from an abduction, and they are particularly active in urban areas. The intent and capability of these groups varies from location to location, but some general patterns can be identified. In particular, kidnappers have two main considerations when contemplating who next to target: whether the victim can pay what the kidnappers see as a reasonable ransom; and whether the abduction has a high chance of success.
The kidnapper business model
Incidents involving high-net-worth individuals occur, but are not common. Instead of looking for a high-net-worth victim who will yield a single, multi-million-dollar ransom, most kidnappers pursue a longer-term strategy – a business model of successive, fast-turnaround abductions targeting middle-income victims. Kidnappers determine whether a victim fits the profile based on simple things like material displays of wealth, and whether he or she lives in an area that the kidnappers perceive as affluent.
There is little evidence to suggest that criminal kidnappers only target employees in specific, ‘lucrative’ sectors. In most cases, the kidnappers have no idea who employs the victim until they have them in captivity. Some sectors are targeted more than others, but that often comes down to exposure. Given the nature of their roles, media and NGO workers more often travel to the highest-risk kidnap areas, so are more likely to be abducted. In most cases where certain sectors appear to suffer a greater proportion of kidnaps, such as the oil and gas sector in the Niger delta, this is often because those industries have a significant presence in that area.
Local nationals bear the brunt of the crime in every country worldwide. They are far more numerous than foreign nationals and are generally ‘softer’ targets. Although foreign nationals are often considered ‘high value’ targets, the capability of groups to target them varies significantly among jurisdictions. In countries like India, where foreign nationals accounted for less than 0.5% of cases recorded in 2016, being a foreigner provides some protection from kidnappers, who lack the capability to undertake high-risk abductions. But while being a foreigner provides protection in New Delhi, it can make individuals a target in locations like the Niger delta. There, experienced gangs have access to terrain that is difficult to police and are able to hold foreigners more easily.
Local targeting factors
Based on the above criteria – middle-income local nationals employed in any sector – kidnappers would consider a large proportion of any company’s employees to be potential targets. It is the specific kidnapping group’s operational capability that determines how they narrow the field. Those with higher capability can carry out more complex abductions, but still want to be sure of a successful abduction. In a city with several thousand inhabitants of the same profile, instituting suitable preventative security measures, such as kidnap awareness and avoidance training, is one way to ensure kidnappers look past your company’s employees in favour of easier targets.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to mitigate kidnap risks. In any given location there can be other factors for companies to consider when assessing risk to personnel. For-ransom kidnappers in Mexico are largely deterred from targeting foreign victims: less than 1% of recorded victims in 2016 were foreign nationals, excluding cases involving foreigners of Mexican descent and Central American migrants. However, express kidnappers spend a very short period of time forcing victims to withdraw cash from an ATM and so face less risk of arrest. As a result, they frequently target foreigners of any nationality. Virtual kidnappers, who never come into contact with the victim and only pretend to have kidnapped someone in a bid to extort a payment, are most brazen of all in their targeting, often singling out business travellers in hotel rooms.
Militant groups that engage in kidnap-for-ransom operate by a totally different code. Islamist extremist groups are not only ideologically motivated to kidnap foreigners, but also have the advanced operational capability to defeat most security deterrents. Moreover, they do not share criminals’ concerns regarding law enforcement. They tend to use established safe havens, beyond the reach of law enforcement or military access and control, where they can hold victims undetected for months, and in some cases years. Control Risks’ data indicates that in militant- or terrorist-related cases, employment sector still does not factor into the targeting decision. The fact that the victim is foreign is what concerns them because it means they can better achieve their financial or ideological goals.
Understanding the local complexities of kidnappers’ tactics is key to developing the preventative policies and procedures that will secure your workforce wherever they operate. Recognising that employees and their dependants in any sector may be at risk is a critical starting point.