Kidnapping - dead or alive?

The Threat

From Afghanistan to Kazakhstan, and from Colombia to Iraq, international events continue to highlight the risk to travellers - whether on holiday or on business - of being seized by local groups when abroad.

Of course, the threat of kidnap can face people in their home towns, if they are, say, particularly wealthy, or children in a family custody row. But it is the seizure in more remote and high-risk locations that poses a potential problem for multinational companies, together with their employees and their families.

Much of what follows is written in terms of the corporate environment and overseas travel. However, the message and the principles apply equally-well to high-net-worth individuals wherever they are, with the proviso that kidnappings in this latter sector are likely to be carried out for monetary gain alone, as opposed to the gaining of leverage in any political or sectoral arena.

In any one year, several thousand kidnappings are reported openly worldwide, and it is estimated that reported incidents represent only a small proportion of actual events. A 2001 Foreign Policy Centre report* estimates that kidnappers globally take home well over US$ 500 million each year - and that figure, too, may be an under-estimate.

However, many of these are "local" events, in such areas as Central and Latin America, where the incidence of kidnap is relatively-high, and so an incidents may little publicity. It is important not to take the problem out of perspective. The odds of any one individual’s being kidnapped are remote. But the odds that any one large company operating globally will have an employee or family member kidnapped, are more substantial.

A kidnapping may be intended to target the Company, either in order to put pressure on it to, say, recognise local territorial rights, or to discourage new market development by a Western business. Equally, it may be meant to embarrass the host government, or to press some local grievance. But more often than not, money - ransom - is the sole purpose.

It is far from unknown for someone to be kidnapped by mistake. Some years ago, in Yemen, an expatriate employee of an oilfield service company took a weekend drive into the mountains. He was driving closely behind a small line of cars that, unknown to him, contained the Regional Governor and his retinue. A local tribal group with a grievance against government policy seized the Governor and his party, and the expatriate was swept up along with them.

Although totally-unassociated with the original grievance, he was held for several months, and only released after a lengthy period of discomfort that he had not anticipated when going abroad.

The risks to the employing company are several. At the most obvious level, they may find themselves paying a ransom, which can be substantial - an asking figure of around US$ 2 million is not unusual in certain parts of the world (although you would not expect to pay that amount) and demands of ten times that value have been made. Also, of course, there are likely to be costs in business disruption, especially if the employee holds a key position. Not infrequently, it is the Chief Executive who will be targeted, and his absence for 3 months may well have an impact on the share price.

Nor do the effects of a kidnap stop here. Internationally-deployed personnel, possibly encouraged by their families, may display a reluctance to be deployed overseas, or an eagerness to return home - states that may not coincide with the needs of the Company. At best, expatriate remuneration packages may cost more, and there can be a liability to civil action if employees are seized in locations where the Company has failed to brief or protect them adequately.

Protection and Prevention

Like every other security measure, safeguarding against kidnap needs to be part of a coherent security strategy - it is very difficult, if not impossible, to write an anti-kidnap strategy in a security vacuum.

In addition, many of the measures that will protect the expatriate from kidnap also serve to protect him from other forms of attack. Secure work premises, well-sited and protected accommodation, reliable means of transport and training in local laws and customs are among the many measures that will help to ensure that his or her overseas life is as safe as possible.

But there are also specific measures that will help to protect you as an individual from being kidnapped. Firstly and most importantly, believe that it can happen to you - because it CAN. Next, be careful where you go and how you appear. Every country and city has its unsafe areas, and they should be avoided wherever possible. Avoid obvious displays of wealth - and interpret that word by local standards, where a pair of Chinos may mark you out as a (comparatively) rich foreigner.

Vary your routes when travelling; let others know where you are; drive defensively and look out for indications that you are being watched or followed. Ask your corporate security department for advice on individual countries - they should be able to provide it.


Mention has been made above of the need to brief expatriates before they travel overseas. This is vital in security terms generally, and not just in relation to the possibility of kidnap. A cautionary tale may help to bring the point home.

Recently, this author was advising the local operation of a multi-national company deployed in a hazardous West African location. During the visit, he accompanied an expatriate manager to a remote jungle location to look at the security of a Company facility. A Company employee - young, female, expatriate, who had never been outside of the USA before and was on a week-long visit to the Company - came along "for the ride".

All went well, until their vehicle was stopped at a military road block in the middle of nowhere. Passports, with cartes de sejours or visas were demanded. The young lady was carrying only a Texan driving licence. She was dragged from the vehicle at rifle-point and put in the back of a truck with 40 male locals who had been arrested for carrying no papers, to be taken to a communal cell.

Two hours of increasingly-difficult negotiations obtained her release for long enough to return to the capital to collect her passport - and only the author spoke enough of the local language to carry out that negotiation. What might her fate have been, and whose fault would that fate have been? Shaking and crying after release, she pointed out that no-one carried passports "at home" and no-one had told her that it was necessary in this particular country.

Naïve? Perhaps. But not as naïve as the Company that sent her. Not everyone in the world is a seasoned international traveller. Even companies that have no concern for their staff should consider their potential legal liability, should they fail to brief travellers properly.

Behaviour during Captivity

A successful kidnapping will go through several phases - abduction, possibly questioning, captivity, negotiation and release. The abduction phase represents the time of most danger to the captive: the kidnappers will be on edge, determined to secure the victim’s immediate compliance, and may take measures more extreme than they had originally planned. Equally, during a release procedure, they will be wary and expecting deception or attack. For these reasons, the subject’s behaviour must be particularly circumspect during these phases.

There is no suggestion that, if faced with a kidnapping attempt, you should succumb readily, but once capture is inevitable, your first priority is to survive the event. And remember, you are now a marketable commodity in a proposed deal. The kidnappers will gain no benefit form needlessly injuring or killing you : either circumstance could lessen of eliminate your value.

Generally, questioning will be aimed only at ascertaining your value, likely contacts, and with whom to deal. Be extremely cautious about revealing your wealth and assets - letting the kidnappers know that a large reward could be paid for your release will not have the effect of hastening that release - it will only raise the level of demand and complicate the negotiation phase.

Likewise, if you are aware that you are covered by kidnap and ransom insurance, do not ever reveal this fact to the kidnappers, or you will set back your release substantially.

A whole book could be written about how to behave during captivity, but try to remember these basic rules:

Corporate Crisis Management

The danger of kidnapping is just one more threat faced by modern companies deployed worldwide. You need to be prepared for it at Board level, and it needs to be written into your corporate crisis management plan. Kidnap contingency planning is a specialised matter, and each plan must include a degree of detail not present in a generic plan.

When an employee is seized, here are some of the issues that will demand immediate action. His (or her) family will be demanding "action this day", and wanting to know why you didn’t look after the loved one. The kidnappers will be wanting money, cessation of your operations, or, perhaps, that you put pressure on the host government to right some perceived wrong. Other expatriate employees will be looking for protection: some may be demanding that they or their families be flown home. If a key employee has been taken, your operation may be in danger of failure.

And always, of course, the media will be at your door, demanding to know what, where, when and, above all, why? How will you handle them? As with any other contingency, it is too late to start planning for the crisis once you are in the middle of it.

Kidnap & Ransom Negotiation

And how will you deal with the kidnappers themselves? The immediate answer is simple. Do not meet the demand. Whilst an immediate payment might seem an easy, if expensive, solution, it is highly unlikely to work.

There are many reasons for this, some less obvious than others, but the overriding ones are twofold. Firstly, it will be difficult for you to know that you are dealing with the genuine kidnappers, that the victim is alive, and that they can and will deliver him or her to you. Secondly, by agreeing an immediate payment, you will persuade the kidnappers that they have under-priced the return, and they will either increase their demand or subject you to a double hit - ie, take the money, but then demand more before releasing their captive.

Kidnap negotiation is a sophisticated business, which should only be carried out by professionals. The enthusiastic amateur who tries to go it alone has seen too many action movies. If he is very lucky, he will secure a release at many times the going rate; very possibly, he will pay the money and hear no more of the victim; almost certainly, he will endanger the victim, and, not improbably, he will cost the victim his life.

Negotiation techniques are not a black art, but, equally, they are not something to be spelled-out in a generally-accessible document. Handled correctly, a kidnap and ransom negotiation will result in the safe return of the captive, at the lowest possible price, within the shortest possible time-frame.

The inclusion of price in that equation is neither tight-fisted nor capricious. If kidnappers suspect that price is no object, they will continue the captivity – or go o n to seize another Company or family member – until they are persuaded that there is no more money in the pot.

The Solution

For many companies, all of the above adds up to a liability that they cannot meet, and so would wish to ignore, in the hope that it will go away.

But they can meet that liability, and they can do so in a straightforward manner. Special risks insurance, underwritten by Lloyds of London, will provide cover for the payment of ransom demands. Much more significantly, such cover will provide the services of a response company, which will, in the event of a kidnapping, immediately deploy a trained case officer to the kidnap location, in order to assist with recovery planning and negotiation.

Not only that, but the response company will be able to provide proactive and preventative advice to the company, before any incident occurs. This advice will encompass both corporate-level contingency planning, in-country threat evaluation, and briefing packs and sessions for employees being deployed overseas.

Living and working abroad can be one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable experiences of one’s life. But kidnap for ransom or other purpose is a risk that is not going to go away. The Company that never encounters it is lucky. The Company that faces it unprepared will be very unlucky indeed.

* The Kidnapping Business, Rachel Briggs, ISBN 1-903558-03-4