The global kidnapping environment saw several notable developments in 2018. In the most noteworthy global trend, Control Risks’ data showed average kidnap durations had declined to five days or fewer. This represents a significant decrease since the beginning of the decade. Other major developments included an increase in cryptocurrency ransom demands, and an evolution in and expansion of militant and militia kidnapping in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other baseline kidnapping trends and metrics broadly held steady in 2018 as most kidnappers maintained their methodologies. However, there were shifts in certain regions related to political instability, conflict and economic dynamics.

Decreasing durations of captivity

Our worldwide kidnap-for-ransom statistics indicate that the number of recorded kidnaps, and average ransom demands and payments largely held steady in 2018. However, they also showed a continued decline in kidnap durations, with the average case lasting five days or fewer, compared with 29 days in 2011. These were largely perpetrated by Islamist militant groups, guerrilla groups, and militias in countries such as Syria, Mali, Libya, Yemen and Colombia, and at sea by pirates based in Somalia. Armed groups in these areas enjoyed a greater degree of freedom in ungoverned spaces or strongholds, and were able to hold victims for longer while negotiating large cash ransoms or political concessions.

A significant reduction in Somali piracy since 2012, as well as a drop in high-profile kidnaps of foreigners by Islamist militant groups in several regions, has hastened the decline in average kidnap durations. Nonetheless, high-profile kidnaps of foreigners continued unabated in some areas in 2018, including the western Sahel, where incidents were recorded in Burkina Faso and Niger. Moreover, our data implies that criminal groups in kidnap hotspots such as Nigeria and Mexico are attempting to maximise ransom payments through a high-volume, rapid settlement strategy, moving quickly from one victim to the next.

The increasingly fast-paced nature of kidnaps – from the moment of abduction through the transfer to captivity, negotiations, resolution, provision of concession and release – requires organisations with a duty of care to create and maintain dynamic incident- and crisis-management plans. Employers need flexible, adaptable crisis-management frameworks with pre-determined actions and tasking to reflect the changing nature of kidnapping. An organisation may no longer have weeks or months to create and implement negotiation and media strategies, engage in family liaison, or plan post-release support for the victim or victims. With this accelerated timeframe in mind, an organisation’s successful navigation of the many moving parts of a kidnap-for-ransom benefits exponentially from immediate access to kidnap response professionals and expert advice.

Cryptocurrency ransom demands continue to spread in 2018

The increasing availability and use of cryptocurrency continued to slowly permeate the global kidnap-for-ransom environment in 2018, with demands in cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin and Monero more regularly reported. Control Risks recorded demands for ransoms in cryptocurrency in countries in every region of the world in 2018, ranging from India to Trinidad and Tobago. Previously a favoured tactic of remote cyber-extortionists – such as hackers extorting money from large organisations – cryptocurrency demands are now being made by less sophisticated kidnapping groups. For example, a low-level gang in Mexico’s Chihuahua state issued a cryptocurrency demand for a victim kidnapped in February 2018.

However, the use of this technology should not be overstated. Kidnap cases featuring cryptocurrency ransom demands have proven particularly newsworthy, and overreporting risks inflating the scale and perception of the phenomenon. Control Risks assesses that the vast majority of financially motivated kidnappers will continue to demand cash ransoms, in line with their established modus operandi. Furthermore, the technical sophistication required to create cryptocurrency wallets and successfully complete transfers and withdrawals of funds will remain elusive or inconvenient for both sides of the transaction in many of the world’s kidnap hotspots.

Proliferation of kidnaps by localised militias, Islamist militant groups in Africa

Previously largely confined to established high-risk, lawless regions, the Islamist militant kidnapping threat in sub-Saharan Africa has undergone a transformation in recent years. Local and transnational armed groups affiliated with either al-Qaida or Islamic State (IS) have posed the main Islamist militant kidnapping threat on the continent. Such groups regularly break apart or coalesce to form new factions and coalitions. In recent years, the three centres of gravity, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – now part of Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) – in the western Sahel, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia, have all experienced such splintering in the form of breakaway factions aligning themselves with IS: Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Islamic State in Somalia (ISS), respectively.

In 2018, Control Risks additionally tracked an ideological and geographical diversification of Islamist militant kidnapping groups in Africa, driven by grassroots momentum and localised grievances. In Mozambique, a homegrown militant group, al-Sunnah, which conducted its first attack in northern Cabo Delgado province in 2017, may present a kidnapping threat in the area. Similar movements have emerged in northern and eastern Burkina Faso, often ethnically distinct and similarly capitalising on local grievances and deprivation, and supplementing the latent threat presented by more experienced militants operating in the area. Meanwhile, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia in eastern Congo (DRC) has become increasingly overt in its Islamist branding and rhetoric, and is reportedly seeking ties with IS.

In other African countries, such as Cameroon, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, politically aligned militias in 2018 continued to use kidnapping as a funding and intimidation tactic. In particular, armed groups currently engaged in a secessionist struggle in anglophone North-West and South-West regions of Cameroon adopted the tactic in earnest, resulting in a 500% rise in reported incidents country-wide in 2018. These kidnaps usually targeted local representatives of the government and members of civil society, with limited impact on multinational operations in the area. Nonetheless, Control Risks anticipates attempts to target personnel in the coming year, as armed groups try to undermine the investment environment and national economy, while financing themselves through ransom payments.

Global trends largely hold steady

Beyond regional shifts stemming from political instability, conflict and economic drivers, the fundamental characteristics of the global kidnap environment experienced little change in 2018:

  • A seven percentage point increase in both the African and Asia Pacific regions was driven in large part by an increase in reported incidents in Cameroon and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a decline in the percentage of global incidents occurring in the Americas region does not imply a reduction in incidents in real terms, and the region retained the highest percentage of recorded incidents year-on-year, at 37%,.
  • Criminal kidnapping gangs continued to perpetrate the majority of kidnaps-for-ransom, including 97% of those in the Americas. Islamist militant groups and “other armed groups” (ethnically and politically aligned militias and separatist groups) continued to represent more geographically defined threats.
  • Driven by the cyclical demands of the criminal kidnapper business model (usually a high turnover of short-duration kidnaps), the proportion of incidents resolved in under a week remained at 85% of all incidents recorded by Control Risks. As ever, Control Risks recorded several long-running, outlier cases, with the longest period of captivity concluding in 2018 being 1,218 days.
  • Local nationals continued to represent the majority of kidnap victims in 2018, accounting for 93% of victims in incidents worldwide, down only one percentage point on 2017. Foreign nationals continue to represent potentially more lucrative victims for kidnappers. However, their smaller footprint in kidnapping hotspots, combined with their more reliable adoption of security precautions, appears to have largely dissuaded many mid- to low-capability financially motivated kidnappers.

Case durations are likely to remain low, though isolated long-running cases will continue to occur. This emphasises the importance of agile crisis-management planning by organisations with exposure to kidnapping and duty of care. Kidnappers’ continued appropriation of new technology, such as cryptocurrencies and anonymised communications platforms, remains a trend to watch, but is unlikely to transform the tactics of most perpetrators in the coming year. Control Risks’ data from 2018 suggests core global kidnapping trends will remain on a steady trajectory. Nonetheless, they also reveal developing high-risk zones, particularly in Africa, that require monitoring and potential posture re-evaluation for organisations present in or seeking to enter those markets.

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