When it all goes wrong, at least get the response right
July 2021: There are so many ways a kidnapping can go wrong for the victim and the victim’s family, writes Stephen Grossman, so it is vitally important to involve people who have experience in this field.
So much depends on the kidnappers’ experience, motivation, cultural and religious views, on whether it is a large group behind it or a small group or cell, on the weather, altitude, on their language skills, technical communication capabilities and dozens of other factors.
This list doesn’t even begin to address the risks related to the victim’s health (mental and physical at the time of the abduction and throughout the ordeal), family and their ability to respond and to cope and willingness to sacrifice (because getting a loved one released requires sacrifice in many forms) and what kind of professional and financial support is available.
Not having an experienced, trustworthy, capable negotiator and/or response consultant on board is the first challenge in eventually managing a successful outcome. Refusals to pay, paying too quickly, paying too much or too little, attempting a rescue, enlisting the assistance of corrupt police – who may in fact be members of the kidnapping team – going to the media or staying away from the media, giving ill-worded responses, not being available during a scheduled communications window… sending in an inexperienced or corrupt courier with ransom payments… Anything the family does or doesn’t do just right could cost the life of their loved one. And sometimes, even when one does everything imaginable correctly, something can go wrong, and the outcome can be grim. It’s a very unfunny funny business.
Nigerian kidnappers recently abducted an elderly courier sent by a group of distraught parents whose children had been taken. The courier was en route with a ransom payment of 30m naira (or just over US$70,000) to secure the release of dozens of these school children. The parents had sold land and other possessions to pay the ransom, only to see their hopes dashed by the disappearance of the courier.
Couriers and drivers must be as professional and experienced in hostage negotiation process as the negotiators. The risk of the driver and courier colluding to steal the ransom payment is high, as are the chances that the kidnappers have been conducting counter-surveillance and have their own intelligence capabilities and will seize on any opportunity they can to increase their revenues from mistakes made by amateur responders. A poorly executed exchange can result in death, or minimally an extension of the time in captivity and the cost of a release.
The recent Nigerian example is just one such bad scenario of so many each year. These botched efforts increase when kidnapping victims do not have access to, or experience in, how to secure professional response consultants.
Though having a top-notch team on your side doesn’t necessarily mean freedom for the hostage(s). Even the most elite responders get it wrong too. Take the case of South African national Pierre Korkie, who had been held hostage in Yemen by AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), together with UK-born US journalist Luke Sommers. Unbeknown to US special operators and military planners, Korkie was about to be released hours before the raid that ended in both hostages being killed by the captors. The elite SEAL team was detected by the kidnappers 100 yards out from its target. And even if the team hadn’t been spotted, hostage rescues are delicate, dangerous ventures that often go south.
Kidnappings, abductions, and extortive crimes (cyber and physical world) have been on an aggressive upward trajectory. In 2020, ransomware attacks and payouts were estimated to cost the global economy and the victims around US$21 billion, double that of the previous year. A growing trend of state actors employing criminal groups to carry out abductions and/or to carry out cyberattacks and cyber extortion, either on the state’s behalf or with its tacit approval, is deeply concerning. Contracts or approval from governments emboldens a highly motivated and capable segment of the criminal world to ratchet up their activities and to expand the scope of their targets and demands exponentially, as well as geographically.
With the surge in child abductions, politically motivated kidnappings and human trafficking of all types, and with the ease and success rates of carrying out cyber-based extortive crimes, it is likely the only statistic to decrease will be the numbers of people not affected by these crimes.
Considering the statistics and public awareness, it’s hard to comprehend why so many people are left without the right kind of assistance from genuine professionals who really know what they are doing. This shadowy world has been exposed to the light by media for years. The numbers of firms and professionals in this space increases every year. And yet with all this awareness and availability, many businesses, NGOs and wealthy families continue to cut corners on their security and risk management and cheapen out when events do occur.
Sadly, people often put more effort in tapping and examining a watermelon or checking any other fruit for ripeness than they do in picking out risk and response consultants to aid them in the worst moments of their lives.