Kidnapping trends worldwide in 2016

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  • Operational and Protective Security
Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith

Kidnapping trends worldwide in 2016


The world of kidnapping-for-ransom saw several notable developments in 2016. Areas of relative calm faced emerging threats, new victim sets found themselves at risk and kidnappers struck in a range of unexpected locations. However, the headline changes masked the fact that 2016 was also a year of relative continuity. While localised developments bucked regional trends, other major hotspots remained focal points for the crime. However, total kidnapping levels are just one measure of kidnapping risk. Regional differences in kidnapper profiles, methodology and targeting patterns are just as critical to understanding the threat that kidnapping poses.

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Top three developments in 2016
  1. A combination of economic and political factors simmering since the Nigerian elections two years ago drove a resurgence in maritime kidnapping in the Gulf of Guinea. In the opening months of the year, and with little warning, militants cashed in on foreign crews. This led to the highest rates of piracy in the region for almost ten years. With their coffers filled, a lull ensued before kidnappers began a new series of attacks from November onwards.
  2. The Sulu Sea, 7,000 nautical miles east, was the site of our second key development. The Philippines-based Sunni Islamist extremist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), long an adherent of kidnapping-for-ransom, adapted its methodology to include maritime abduction to acquire lucrative foreign victims. It had carried out no abductions of foreigners at sea in 2015 and the change in methodology understandably surprised shipping companies transiting the area. The group’s fractured nature and the fact that elements are influenced by Islamic State (IS) have complicated the risks associated with ASG kidnapping.
  3. Despite the emerging offshore threat in Asia Pacific (APAC), the region was overtaken by the Americas as the world’s primary region for kidnapping in terms of total levels of the crime. Mexico continued to account for the majority of incidents as the security situation deteriorated. However, developments elsewhere drove the changing trend. Increasingly comprehensive media coverage shone a brighter light on the kidnapping problem around the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, and a deep and prolonged recession fuelled the crime in Venezuela.
Incident numbers: just one measure of risk

Rising kidnapping levels in pockets of the Americas saw this region move ahead of every other in terms of total levels of the crime in 2016. This was further accentuated by a real term reduction in the number of recorded cases in some Asian, Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan African countries. However, the increase in incidents in the Americas should not draw attention away from the continuing and – in some cases – unchanged risks in other parts of the world. In Nigeria, for example, high numbers are consistent with the previous year.

It is important to note that the total number of cases is just one factor for evaluating the risk. The nature of the threat – kidnapper profiles, case durations and victim targeting patterns – varies enormously from country to country.

Kidnapper profiles

Although Middle East and North Africa (MENA) accounted for just 13% of kidnaps worldwide, levels of the crime have barely reduced as conflict has remained entrenched across large swathes of the region. In many war affected areas of Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, paucity of reporting impacts statistics. However, the difference between the levels of reporting and the kidnapping risk is at its starkest here. The kinds of actors engaged in the crime are testament to the sheer complexity of the kidnapping risk, which is rated as ‘High’ or ‘Extreme’ across much of the region.

MENA was home to the largest proportion of non-criminal abductions, with more than a quarter of all incidents attributed to Islamist terrorist groups including IS. To a lesser degree, a combination of Islamist terrorists and other armed groups supplemented the threat in sub-Saharan Africa and APAC. With territory under their control, they can be more audacious in their methodology and their capabilities are typically superior to those of their criminal peers. They can pinpoint individuals for targeting or trawl for large groups and, after carrying out an abduction, some retreat into ungoverned spaces where they bide their time before issuing large financial or complex political demands.

Case durations

The percentage of cases lasting fewer than seven days rose in 2016. Rather than reflecting a change in methodology at a local level, this was a symptom of the inflated proportion of cases in the Americas. Of all short cases reported globally, more than 50% were recorded in the region. Criminal gangs there are typically more geared towards successive, fast-turnaround abductions, and they are much more inclined to reach a quick settlement and release their captives before they are caught. In Argentina in particular, it is rare for victims to be held for longer than a few hours – a tactic that few kidnappers emulate worldwide.

The region’s guerrilla groups – once among the most prolific kidnappers worldwide – have traditionally held victims for extended periods. Those cases are increasingly outdated in the Americas, especially given that the region’s largest guerrilla group – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – in 2016 signed a peace deal with the Colombian government, a big step towards its demobilisation. While smaller guerrilla groups continued to hold victims for weeks and months in rural Colombia and Paraguay, long cases were more common in other regions with a greater militant or Islamist terrorist presence. Indeed, a slew of highly drawn out cases came to an end last year, and the vast majority were outside the Americas. Victims taken captive in each year since 2010 were released. Most had been held in ungoverned spaces in countries such as Syria, Pakistan and the Philippines. In the longest case to draw to a close, a Canadian tourist was released after approximately 1,900 days of captivity in Afghanistan.

Victim targeting

The number of cases involving foreign national victims rose during 2016; at a global level, foreigners accounted for 5% of victims, up from 4% in 2015. APAC, sub-Saharan Africa and MENA accounted for 86% of all foreign victims. However, more striking than the overall increase in foreign victims was the rise in targeting of travellers.  Maritime abductions in the Sulu Sea played a big part in this shift, as seafaring kidnappers seized more than 50 foreigners from low freeboard vessels including tugs and yachts. The group had not carried out a single maritime abduction the year before. Travellers are typically less likely to be targeted than expatriates because they lack established routines that would make an abduction easier for their would-be captors. Although expatriates continued to make up the majority of foreign victims, that majority was far slimmer than in 2015. Travellers accounted for one-third of foreign victims in 2016, up from one-fifth the year before.

Getting ahead of the curve

Understanding kidnapping risk means recognising where there is continuity and where there is change; it means knowing when new threats emerge and when old ones subside. But understanding the unique challenge that kidnapping poses to an organisation requires more than an acknowledgement of where levels of the crime are highest. It requires understanding the nuances of the threat from one location to another. Not only are kidnappers’ methodologies and targets different, so too are the impact that they can have.

Control Risks’ Response division and its Special Risks Analysis (SRA) team are the leading source of kidnap-for-ransom and threat extortion research and analysis, and have unparalleled operational experience in the field over the course of four decades. During this time, Response has worked on more than 3,000 incidents in 136 countries around the world, feeding further proprietary insights and context back into the SRA team to inform its analysis.

Kidnapping trends worldwide in 2016

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