Alexandra Clifton, Analyst, Response, GardaWorld
Alexandra is an analyst at GardaWorld Response. The GardaWorld kidnap for ransom response team delivers services to a range of clients including private individuals, multinational corporations, media organizations, NGOs and intergovernmental organizations, and small to medium enterprises. She has a bachelor’s degree in Chinese and Politics from SOAS (formally the School of Oriental and African Studies) and is currently studying (part-time) for her Master’s degree in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London. She has also studied at Beijing Normal University and is proficient in Mandarin and French. Her working life has comprised various research intern positions for the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Academy, political risk analysis companies and communications companies. She has been editorial assistant for published academic works and organises events for the London branch of think-tank Project for Study of the 21st Century.
What would you highlight as some of the most important kidnap, ransom and extortion trends for 2017?
Among the most important trends in kidnap, ransom and extortion (KRE) in 2017 have been the cross-border geographical spread of virtual kidnapping in North America and the exponential increase in traditional kidnappings in Nigeria, and a wider pool of victims.
GardaWorld has observed the increased rate and geographical spread of ‘virtual kidnapping’ in North America with interest. Virtual kidnapping is an ‘extortion-by-deception’ practice whereby kidnappers extract ransom by falsely claiming to have abducted a loved one. Relying on the fear and panic created by a crisis situation, perpetrators demand immediate, low value ransoms from their victims for the fictitious safe return of their loved ones.
Virtual kidnapping is not a new phenomenon – it has been witnessed in Mexico for nearly two decades, and more recently in US areas close to Mexico. However, 2017 increasingly recorded incidents spilling into US states far from the border including Idaho, Washington and North Carolina. These cases also increasingly took place in English. GardaWorld has noted that many of the virtual kidnappings were carried out by prisoners in Mexico who bribe guards to acquire mobile phones and make use of their time by engaging in ‘cold-calling’ wealthy area codes at random until a victim falls for the scam.
Virtual kidnapping is often successful because it presents unsuspecting and inexperienced individuals with a highly emotive and challenging situation. The first step toward remedying any KRE crisis is establishing the validity of any would be kidnapper’s claims. Establishing proof of life and proof of capture is critical to establishing a course of action that ultimately leads to the safe return of loved ones. Like all other scams, remaining calm and thinking critically are the first steps toward mitigating against this type of extortion.
Traditional kidnap and piracy
A continuing concern for travellers to Nigeria has been the exponential increase in the number of incidents related to traditional kidnappings and piracy throughout 2017. Building upon already established practices, Nigeria has seen an evolution of kidnapping in the Niger Delta region from a political to a purely financial practice. Where previously internationals were abducted in part to highlight the environmental damage cause by oil and gas exploration, criminal gangs quickly understood the lucrative nature of kidnapping and are now motivated entirely by the financial gain.
While multinationals have begun to take initial security steps to mitigate against the evolving threat, KRE groups and their copy-cats have broadened their pool of victims to include high net-worth Nigerians, the religious establishment and shipping sector employees, to continue the lucrative practice. The vast majority of these have been on the roads –especially on inter-state highways –and in littoral areas where pirates make use of low state presence along the coast and in the Delta region.
Continuing socio-economic problems; the inability or inefficient state response has led to an increased number of abductions taking place. In an attempt to tackle this, the Nigerian Government has passed bills in 2017, notably in September approving the death penalty for kidnapping and a 30-year jail term for individuals colluding with kidnappers. However, the death of a UK national in the last quarter of 2017 underlines the continuing threat that travellers have faced this year. With continuing poverty, unemployment and overstretched state forces, these trends also look set to continue in 2018.
Which do you think was the most notable case and why?
While 2017 has witnessed many important cases relating to KRE, the abduction of four foreign nationals in Libya, in November was notable for the impact outside of the event itself which is twofold. It firstly highlights that for organisations working in hostile and complex environments, security practices alone are not necessarily sufficient without additional crisis management plans in place. It also suggests that, despite the initial reaction of withdrawing over 300 foreign contractors, there is a continued foreign commitment to engaging in Libya.
The incident involved the abduction of three Turkish nationals and a fourth international working on the Ubari Gas Plant. The high-profile Ubari development is being managed by Turkish construction firm, ENKA Teknik. They have been working on the Ubari Gas Plant which is almost complete after years of intermittent work on the project, periodically interrupted by lack of security in the region and violence.
A week later ENKA Teknik withdrew 93 employees from the Ubari power station. By November 18, all 300+ foreign workers working on the plant had been removed from the project. The initial reaction provoked fears that the incident would prove disastrous to Libya’s attempts to encourage foreign contractors to return to the country; resolve the country’s electricity supply problems and help the country to recover from the 2011 uprisings and subsequent conflict.
This case is significant because despite the initial reactions to the event, there are indications that foreign contractors and multinational companies are not swayed from investment in the country. Libya currently represents one of the most dangerous countries in the world but is set to receive huge amounts of foreign investment over the coming years including recently completed contracts totalling €700 million to build and develop power stations in Libya. This – amongst other recent investments, and the return of various diplomatic missions, UNSMIL and the EU Integrated Border Assistance Mission – display an ongoing commitment to engaging in the country and participating in its future. This case is also significant as it highlights the fact that working in complex and hostile situations requires more than just established security practices – even for organisations well-versed with working in high risk environments. In order to continue working in the country, foreign contractors, diplomatic and humanitarian staff should consider crisis management and ongoing duty of care plans as well as pre-deployment subvention training to mitigate their risk.
What will you be watching out for in 2018?
It will be important to monitor Mozambique over the coming year for increases in the numbers of kidnappings. While very uncommon throughout the 1990s and early noughties, the number of high-profile kidnappings started to creep up in 2005 and have grown more significantly since 2012.
Despite a glitch in 2016, recent years have seen GDP growth and increased investment from foreign companies such as ExxonMobil, Eni, Statoil and Sasol in the country’s large natural resource deposits – particularly in the liquid natural gas (LNG) sector. The increased wealth has not translated into better infrastructure or greater job prospects for local citizens but rather rising economic inequality, resulting in local dissatisfaction and dissent. These factors, combined with the expansion of criminal network groups and the ineffective state response, has resulted in greater motivation and capability to carry out abductions. Finally, the 2016 laws loosening restrictions on foreign workers in the country as well as the investments in oil and gas in the north will lead to a growing number of potential kidnap victims in Mozambique.
Various indicators suggests that the threat of kidnapping will rise. Firstly, there are well-established criminal networks carrying out kidnappings. There are instances of convicted criminals planning and executing kidnap operations from within prison – a practice which is not uncommon in environments where these types of groups are active. There are examples of intimidation and violence against of state officials investigating kidnap crimes; such as the murder of a judge involved in presiding over a kidnap case.
Secondly, the numbers of instances of foreign kidnaps taking place have been rising gradually since 2014. Various businesspeople, humanitarian workers and spouses of Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese and British nationality have been kidnapped. More recent cases have included the kidnap of foreign business people from Kenya and the alleged extension of Mozambique kidnapping syndicates to South Africa. While some kidnaps have likely been opportunistic, most bear the hallmarks of being targeted, researched and well-planned, suggesting levels of sophistication and expertise.
Finally, the increased numbers of expatriate workers due to enter the country over the following year as further exploration, infrastructure construction and investment due to take place, will lead to a larger pool of potential targets.
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