Kidnap for ransom: a growth market

By Courtenay Smith and Norm Neligan.

The victims of kidnapping are a commodity used to further the ends of the kidnappers. Victims can be bought, sold, traded, and used as a bargaining tool. They may be employed for financial gain, to make a statement, or to attempt to influence political, religious or social outcomes. While the majority of kidnappings are ‘of locals by locals’, the kidnapping of foreigners is on the rise – and so is the cost.

Any overseas travel, for pleasure or work, potentially presents security risks in any country. Fortunately, in most countries the risks are low and can be managed by common sense. A tourist in Europe, for example, should be well aware not to carry valuables carelessly in areas known for pick-pocketing. But the risks are much greater when travellers find themselves in locations of conflict, lawlessness, weak government, or political instability. Traditionally, the majority of kidnapping has occurred in Central and South America but East Africa and Asia – including Kenya, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, and the Philippines – all experience kidnappings, with the incidence of the crime increasing in some of these areas.

Recently, two tourists and two aid workers were kidnapped from northern Kenya and taken to Somalia. At the time of writing, their fate is yet to be determined. As these kidnappings presented an apparent change in modus operandi for Somali criminals, Kenyan authorities were unprepared to respond to the incidents. Until the reasons for the kidnappings become clear, a response plan is difficult to establish.

If the kidnappings are financially motivated, then a negotiated settlement is more easily reached. According to some estimates 40% of hostages are released after a ransom is paid where the motivation is purely financial. However, in the event of a politically motivated kidnapping, as was the case with many foreigners held in Iraq, then the kidnapping may be non-negotiable and a rescue operation may need to be implemented. Al-Qaeda sympathisers kidnapped Australian Dennis Wood in 2005 in Iraq where he spent six weeks in captivity before being rescued. The majority of kidnap victims in Iraq were killed or their fates remain unknown.

The Importance Of Preparation

The rise in adventure tourism has led to a significant increase in tourists, including Australians, exposing themselves to higher risks overseas. Even so, most travellers don’t have kidnapping on their minds as they pack their bags and buy foreign currency. They may not even bother to check the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) travel advisory website. A simple rule for planning a personal holiday: if government advice states do not travel, or reconsider the need for travel, then a different (and safer) destination is the better option.

Companies, on the other hand, in a world of shrinking natural resources, have increased the deployment of staff to medium and higher risk operating environments. However, proper preparation and preventative measures, while not guaranteeing protection from kidnapping, can significantly reduce the risk. And in the event of a kidnapping taking place, a properly developed kidnapping and ransom (K & R) plan can assist employers, governments and specialist security firms to secure the release or rescue of a hostage.

Many individual travellers assume DFAT will come to their rescue in the event of an emergency. While the government will respond, it is not always this simple. In many high-risk countries, DFAT has little or no representation, or in some countries, such as Somalia, no diplomatic relations at all.

Resolution Of A Kidnap Can Take Some Time

The Australian Government needed to assemble a response team in Nairobi when Nigel Brennan was kidnapped in Somalia in 2008. Representatives from DFAT, Australian Federal Police (AFP), and other government agencies were flown in from Australia and other locations to respond. With help from a specialist security consultancy firm, Brennan was released after fifteen months in captivity. Brennan believes any tactical attempt to rescue him would likely have resulted in his death.

Like most Western governments, Australia will not pay a ransom demand and maintains a strict ‘no ransom’ policy. There are pros and cons of such a position. While ransom payment can benefit the individual victim, it can have a negative effect on travellers to that country in general – when a government meets kidnappers’ demands, it increases the likelihood of more kidnappings of its citizens.

Ransom payments can also increase the size of future ransom demands as kidnappers realise a government is not only prepared to pay for the cost, but has the funds available to do so. This does not stop the government, or anyone else, from participating in the negotiation of a ransom during an overall response to a kidnap.

Individuals travelling to high-risk locations should prepare for all eventualities. This can include taking out specialised K & R insurance: the standard holiday travel insurance will likely not be adequate. K & R insurance can be cheap for low risk locales but it may be expensive, sometimes several thousand dollars, if you are travelling to a high-risk location. The insurance coverage usually provides for the services of a company that specialises in responding to kidnapping incidents.

Reputable firms are experienced in all aspects of kidnap response including crisis management, negotiations, information collection, liaison with government authorities and the media. Some purport to have the expertise to conduct a hostage rescue operation in extreme cases. While insurers will fund assistance in the event of a kidnap, they are unlikely to provide the money for ransom. On those rare occasions when a ransom is paid, it must be obtained from elsewhere as the insurance company usually only reimburses the ransom provider as part of the insurance settlement after the event (and may exclude from coverage any expenses directly related to ransom).

Individuals and corporations should also be aware that the payment of a ransom in many countries, and most of the countries in East Asia, is an illegal act unless it is at the request or instruction of the local authorities as part of their formal investigative operation to resolve the kidnapping.

The legal situation for employers is absolutely clear-cut under Australian law. An employer has a duty of care to all its personnel, including those deployed offshore to high-risk areas. This duty of care goes beyond providing appropriate insurance for staff. Employers must take an active role in mitigating the risks and preparing its staff for all potential hazards they may face.

Prior To Travelling To A High-Risk Destination, Individual Travellers Should:

  • Check government travel advice and register with DFAT in the country they are travelling to.
  • Research the destination and understand the cultural sensitivities, and the risks in the location.
  • Complete a Proof of Life document and provide to employer and/or family.
  • Nominate a next of kin, and ensure the person is aware of their responsibilities.
  • Plan the travel in complete detail providing a travel itinerary of all transport and accommodation arrangements to their employer and family.
  • Take out suitable insurance that includes coverage for kidnapping.

In addition to focussing on response processes, proactive assessment of the risks must also be undertaken. For example, the kidnapping of banking personnel in Papua New Guinea has been on the rise over the last two to three years. As a consequence, the major Australian banks working in Papua New Guinea, all of which have had their personnel targeted for kidnappings, have now trained at-risk staff and have developed comprehensive plans to prevent and respond to such incidents. The risk is real.

While many larger employers who regularly deploy staff to high-risk environments have
in-house security teams, these may not always be sufficiently familiar with the environment and may not have the expertise necessary to prepare staff for the destination in question. They may also not be sufficiently expert in proactively assessing risks prior to mobilisation. In the event of a kidnapping the in-house team may not have the ability, contacts, or experience to respond appropriately. If they do not prepare adequately, employers can be exposed to legal action when things go wrong.

In 2010, Flavia Wagner, an aid worker with Samaritan’s Purse, spent 105 days held captive in Darfur, Sudan. This year, Wagner commenced a lawsuit against her employer, alleging it failed in its duty of care. Among a number of claims, the lawsuit stated Samaritan’s Purse failed to provide adequate training, ignored warning signs of kidnappings in the region, and its own head of security in Darfur was too inexperienced to manage the risks in the region. The case remains before the courts.

Specialist Security And Crisis Management Providers

Employers need to actively manage the security of personnel overseas. If staff have to be deployed to high risk areas, they need to be adequately trained to operate in hostile environments and understand how they should act to minimise the risk. They must also learn how to act if kidnapped. Support personnel, whether at home or in-country, must know the risks and be properly trained to implement a crisis management plan and respond to a kidnapping or other emergencies rapidly, efficiently, and effectively.

Employer Responsibilities

When deploying employees overseas, companies should:

  • Commission a security risk assessment
  • Prepare a crisis management plan
  • Provide appropriate training to personnel
  • Identify a reputable K&R response company and engage if necessary
  • Ensure personnel are insured
  • Monitor changes to the risk in country
  • Be prepared to respond rapidly in an emergency

Employers can seek the advice of companies specialising in security risk advice and crisis management. Credible service providers can assist in assessing the risks involved in the country of concern, provide risk mitigation advice, prepare crisis management plans and training to management and personnel, and assist in responding to kidnappings.

Not all companies are reputable and have the right skills, experience, reach, and capabilities. Employers should do their research to determine the most suitable consultancy for their needs. It is notable that the security firm engaged by Samaritan’s Purse is also a defendant in the Wagner’s lawsuit.

Great care must be taken in selecting the right firm. Not only must they be experienced, they need to have the local knowledge and preferably access to senior government contacts on the ground. They must also be trustworthy enough not to divert part or even all of a ransom – a situation that has certainly occurred in Central and South America in past K & R cases.

Preparation should include the development of a formal framework of crisis management planning documents detailing incident identification, assessment and escalation processes; identification of crisis response team members; call-down provisions for specialist service providers (security, media management, counselling); a welfare plan for victims, their work colleagues and families; business processes to manage any business continuity impacts; and contingencies for post-trauma support for any major corporate incident.


The response to an Australian kidnapped overseas will be dependent on the situation. The decision of who ultimately takes the lead in responding will depend on a number of factors including geography, capability, and the wishes of the client (the victim’s family or employer). It is more likely than not that an employer’s insurer and associated security firm will take a prominent role in responding to the kidnapping of a company staff member where insurance has been taken out. This would still require close collaboration with the relevant government agencies, both in-country and from the victim’s country of citizenship.

In the case of an Australian individual, the government will usually take a key role, though other players are necessarily involved from the moment a kidnap situation develops. Significantly, several kidnappings in the Asia Pacific region in recent years have been resolved very quickly, and before Australian government agencies have had the chance to fully mobilise. In a number of recent cases, direct liaison with local police and government agencies by company officials and their nominated security consultants have assisted in achieving a positive investigative outcome including, in many cases, the arrest of the perpetrators.

Employers do not absolve themselves of responsibility once a security consultancy is engaged; they remain an integral part of the response. Employers provide background on the victim, support to family, and engage with the media. Local authorities also play an absolutely critical role. They will most likely have a strong understanding of the environment, knowledge of kidnappings in the region, knowledge of the likely perpetrators, and the ability to provide the necessary logistical support to carry out negotiations or rescue operations if required. However, in some cases, such local assistance will be limited where there may not be an effective government or security apparatus, as in the case of Somalia. In some countries, like Mexico or Venezuela, it is possible that local officials, including the police, may be involved in the crime.

While In A High-Risk Country, Individuals Should:

  • Be aware of, and respectful to, their environment.
  • Not flaunt their wealth or expose their valuables.
  • Stay in secure accommodation.
  • Travel in groups and in daylight whenever possible.
  • Contact people at home (employers/family) at regularly agreed times.
  • In the event of a kidnapping, always comply with captors’ demands.
  • Not attempt to escape unless there is an imminent threat to life.

Cooperation with foreign government agencies, at the national or local level, needs to be managed with care and sensitivity. In all parts of the world, sovereignty is usually jealously guarded and laws differ from country to country. Any unilateral action by a foreign government or a private firm or individual can result in official cooperation being withdrawn. This can often increase the risk to the victim from ill-considered tactical interventions. This happened in the Philippines in 2010 when non-specialist police botched an attempt to free by force a busload of kidnapped tourists resulting in multiple fatalities. Breaking the law (for example, in many jurisdictions paying a ransom is illegal) can attract severe penalties, irrespective of the fact the breach may have been made with the best of intentions.

Negotiations on behalf of the family or employer with local responders can be difficult and challenging. The different parties often lack trust in each other and the competent police authority will also be influenced by its political master and, in certain circumstances, by media coverage and professional criticism. A skilled K & R adviser needs to understand the complexities of these relationships and how to deal with and influence positively the relevant police commanders and their police negotiations team to ensure that the safety of the hostage remains of paramount importance.

Rescue operations should be carried out only as a last resort when negotiations are exhausted and there is an imminent threat to life. These operations are high-risk as they commonly put the hostage in more danger, in addition to the risk to rescuers and civilians alike. When NATO forces attempted to rescue British aid worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan, one of her captors activated his explosive suicide vest. Norgrove died from her injuries. Any private company offering rescue services should be very critically assessed. They are likely breaking the law in the host country (as violence during a rescue is possible) and could expose themselves and their clients to criminal charges or other legal action. In short, private arrangements for rescue operations in hostile environments should be avoided.

No matter how prepared an individual or an employer is, kidnappings are not always avoidable and they are occurring in the Asia-Pacific region as well as in the more predictable locales of the Middle East and Central America. Furthermore, multinational companies are increasing their operational expansion into new and emerging markets that pose higher risks than more developed economies. There are also many individuals who choose to make an adventurous trip to a distant land.

People need to take responsibility to minimise their exposure to kidnap in medium and high-risk environments, and employees and employers must be properly prepared to respond when kidnappings occur. This will not eradicate kidnappings, but it will assist in curtailing the frequency of incidents and reduce the financial, physical, and psychological impact on victims, their families, and employers.

Courtenay Smith is Manager, Asia for Intelligent Risks (IR), based in its Bangkok office, and had a highly successful career in a national security capacity with the Australian Government, including as a senior diplomat on overseas posting, before entering private practice.

Norm Neligan is General Manager of IR, and is a highly qualified security professional with over 20 years experience at senior levels in the Australian Government and private industry in security roles.  IR is a leading international management services consultancy providing risk management, security and crisis management services in over 75 countries, including kidnap preparedness and response. For more information, please visit: