Kidnapping: understanding and managing the threat

Issue 0

One of the sad realities of today’s world is that we are forced to co-exist with several risk factors affecting our safety and security on a daily basis. Amongst these risk factors, kidnapping represents one of the most serious threats to the well-being of individuals, families, businesses and states. Kidnapping is a crime during which the victims and their families are subjected, in a relatively short period of time, to one of the most traumatic physical and psychological experiences.

Understanding the threat
According to South African Criminal Law, kidnapping consists of the unlawful, intentional deprivation of a person's freedom of movement and/or, if such a person is a child, the unlawful, intentional deprivation of a parent's control over the child. The demanding of a ransom for the person's release, which amounts to extortion, is not a requirement for the crime, but only a factor that influences the severity of the punishment. Deprivation of freedom for a short period of just a few hours is sufficient to constitute the crime. Kidnapping must be distinguished from abduction as the latter is specifically committed against a parent's right of authority over a minor.
Three main types of kidnapping can be distinguished
* Criminal kidnapping: in this case the motive can be to obtain the payment of a ransom from the family or business of the victims. Belonging to this specific type is also the criminal who takes hostages as a physical shield in an attempt to escape from the scene of a crime, or against a demand for keys or secret codes to access areas where cash or valuables are stored, eg, banks or jewellery stores.
* Political kidnapping: the main motive being to further the political aims of a given group, eg, a terrorist group or liberation movement, although the payment of a ransom is usually demanded in order for the given group to obtain money to fund their activities, especially if conducted on a worldwide scale.
* Emotional and pathological kidnapping: in this case, kidnapping is committed by emotionally or mentally disturbed people. The first type involves kidnapping, for instance, of children by estranged parents. In the second instance, instead, kidnapping is committed as a way to satisfy certain individual pathologies, eg, a sexual aberration.
It is evident that in many instances kidnapping is a 'business' involving a demand for ransom that may vary considerably (from a small to an extremely high amount of money), depending on the type of criminals involved and the victim's personal status.
Assessing the risk factors
Kidnapping may be interpreted as the logical outcome of a crime wave constantly seeking new avenues to make quick profits from unlawful activities. It is most likely to happen in countries with a strong criminal culture where there is a large gap between the have and the have-nots, as well as a corrupt and inefficient criminal justice system, which is often in collusion with local criminal organisations.
A history of political instability and social conflict with the presence of extremists, eg, radical political, social and religious groups, is also an important factor in determining the risk of kidnapping.
Whilst anyone in any country may be at risk of falling victim to kidnapping, as in the case of a child being snatched or a tourist being kidnapped and a ransom demanded for their release, it is true that certain individuals, due to the nature of their activities and economic or political status, are exposed to a higher risk. The following are instances where the risk of kidnapping may be predictable:
* Company executives and representatives travelling to countries known to have a high incidence of kidnapping.

* Executives and managers who have substantial amounts of cash or valuables under their control.

* Individuals or company executives/representatives who have a high financial profile and professional status as well as members of their families.
Children are particularly at risk in that they are usually easy to find, easy to snatch and, in most cases, guarantee instant financial results for the kidnappers.
* Security personnel handling large amounts of cash or valuables.
Due to their profile, perceived wealth and operating locations in high-risk areas, the following can be considered high-risk industries:
* Construction

* Energy

* Financial institutions

* Utilities

* Communications
Explaining the trends
According to information provided by Control Risk Group (UK), specific global and African trends can be identified.
International trends
Whilst some territories are persistently in the 'top 10', others are always changing as a result of political unrest and economic instability.
* The top 10 kidnapping countries in the world in 1999 were: 1) Columbia, 2) Mexico, 3) Brazil, 4) The Philippines, 5) Venezuela, 6) Ecuador, 7) Former Soviet Union, 8) Nigeria, 9) India, 10) South Africa.

* Victims tend to be aid workers, oil workers and project workers as well as tourists, businessmen, missionaries and victims lured by the '419' letter scams (to South Africa and Nigeria).
African trends
On the African continent the following trends have emerged:
* The top five kidnapping countries in Africa over the last five years were: 1) Nigeria, 2) South Africa, 3) Somalia, 4) Sierra Leone, 5) Angola.
* Trends in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are showing a decrease, but in South Africa the trend has remained consistently high. Latest studies rate the top three African kidnapping countries as follows: 1) Somalia, 2) South Africa, 3) Nigeria.
* Africa has the highest percentage of expatriate victims of any continent of the world (25% in 2002).
South African trends
Generally kidnapping and extortion have been on the rise in South Africa and involved not only local but also foreign crime syndicates, often working as a unit. These criminals targeted both local and foreign business people and wealthy families. A new trend is also emerging, ie, the kidnapping of children involving small ransom demands.
According to statistics released by the Crime Information and Analysis Centre of the South African Police Service, in 2001 there were a total of 3521 reported cases of kidnapping in the country.
However, it is difficult to establish the actual figure concerning kidnapping for ransom, as the latter does not necessarily involve a money extortion. Having said that, this trend is cause for serious concern, a clear indication that, unless given urgent attention by police authorities and potential victims, ie, companies and individuals, the right conditions exist in South Africa for kidnapping to become a growing and profitable criminal business.
Managing the threat of kidnapping
To reduce the risk it is necessary to establish important factors such as: a) who is likely to be at risk; b) who is likely to commit kidnapping; c) where and when is the risk at its greatest.
Much can be done by companies and organisations to reduce and manage the risk to executives, representatives and members of their families. It is essential, however, that they carefully assess the risks to their businesses and staff and that they take all necessary steps to mitigate them. Below are important strategies to be considered:
* Have the risk of kidnapping insured in order to minimise the potentially devastating losses. A comprehensive package of pre-incident risk management, financial protection and crisis response should be considered as the best answer to the threat.
* Consider joining an international intelligence provider in order to obtain up-to-date intelligence on actual and potential threats in specific areas of the world where the company is present.

* Have specialist threat assessment conducted in the areas where the company is or intends operating.

* Keep an up-to-date profile (eg, photograph, personal details, medical history and other special information) on travelling executives and representatives who are exposed to a higher risk of kidnapping.

* Agree on a pre-arranged code system which the executive/representative can use to convey important information in the event of an emergency situation, eg, when threatened by the kidnappers.

* Have a contingency plan in place.
Consider employing the services of specialist consultants to handle a kidnapping-related crisis on your behalf. This usually goes hand in hand with kidnapping insurance.
* Arrange trauma counselling for the family during and after the kidnapping and for the victim upon his or her release.

* Individuals at risk should undergo professional guidance on kidnapping prevention and survival strategies.
Individuals at risk should be briefed at an early stage on the following important preventative strategies:
* Keep all travel itineraries strictly confidential. Do not disclose travel and hotel plans, security arrangements or schedules to outsiders.
* All travel and accommodation arrangements should be made in a name which cannot identify the company or the travelling executive/representative.

* Try to avoid the casual use of taxis or public transport.
If possible, use a reputable hire car and select the route carefully. If a car pool is available, vary the choice of cars but try to avoid any model or colour that can put you on the spot.
* However, if at all possible, try to keep time in transit to a minimum.

* Always ask your company to provide reliable intelligence prior to trips, meetings or functions.

* If there is a perceived risk that warrants more active protection then arrange, through a reputable company, for a personal protection service throughout the duration of the event, eg, function or trip.

* Beware of casual friendships as these could be for sinister purposes.

* Always be alert and observe activities in your immediate environment.
If something suspicious is observed, do not hesitate to contact your company security manager and the relevant authorities. Be aware of the fact that kidnappings tend to be carried out in areas where one lives and socialises.
* Always try to memorise as many details as possible about suspicious activities, eg, date, time, make of vehicle(s), colour, number plate(s), number and description of occupants.

* It is important to remember that the families of executives or representatives can also be at risk of kidnapping and, for this reason, they should therefore receive specialist training on kidnapping prevention strategies.
In view of the above situation, it is essential for companies and individuals at risk of kidnapping to take all necessary steps to prevent its occurrence as this could result in potentially very damaging financial losses, as well as in serious physical and psychological consequences.
The threat of kidnapping can be effectively counteracted through a combination of company and individual preventative strategies. However, the complexity and severity of the threat are such that the need for expert preventative and incident management advice should always be considered when dealing with kidnapping.
Elio Zannoni is a criminologist and specialist in crime risk factors and prevention strategies. He can be contacted at International Threat Analysis, a specialist, international risk consultancy involved in the intelligence and analysis of crime threats and risks worldwide. Contact him on 011 792 3739,


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