The year 2015 has demonstrated that kidnap for ransom is a threat that is here to stay. For 2016, Aegis Response has identified two factors that will significantly affect the threat landscape: technology and the Islamic State. For companies operating in areas where abduction is a risk, these two developments are likely to have a marked effect on preventing and resolving kidnap for ransom incidents.
The accelerated increase in the use of technology is already having an impact on how traditional kidnap for ransoms are perpetrated and managed. On the one hand, this can be positive for both the potential victims and for those seeking to release them. For example, Aegis Response has noted a shift away from negotiations taking place via telephone calls, to email negotiations with kidnappers, with Islamic State almost exclusively using this form of communication for their demands. This gives a crisis management team the luxury of time in a less pressured environment, enabling them to reach a decision on strategy and to craft an ideal response “behind closed doors”.
In terms of proof of life, there are many more options for verification – video voice calls, for example – that can provide extra assurance that a victim is alive and being held by the group in question. However, the almost blanket use of forms of social media and popular messaging applications creates new problems in the kidnap for ransom arena. Victims can now be vulnerable to simple reconnaissance on their personal wealth gleaned from photos posted online and employment information, which kidnappers can investigate from the comfort of their own homes, choosing from a wide range of potential victims. There have been cases of kidnappers with sophisticated cyber capability conducting research on their victims’ bank accounts, abducting them, and then forcing them to simply use their online bank accounts to personally transfer a specific ransom amount for their release.
So, where does this leave insurance reimbursements? While bitcoin, the anonymous currency, is used extensively in cyber extortions, it is spilling over into the realm of kidnap for ransom: we have begun to see cases where kidnappers have demanded to be paid ransoms in this crypto currency. For instance, in October, a businessman from Hong Kong was released after being kidnapped and held in Taiwan for over a month by a gang demanding a ransom of USD9 million in bitcoin. Over the coming year, the trajectory of this technological shift will proceed apace and – for better or worse – further changes are likely in the field of traditional kidnap for ransom.
The Islamic State, for its part, has begun to change the rules of the game in which we – response companies – play.
While the vast majority of kidnappings by the group are financially motivated, the situation becomes far more complex when combined with an ideological narrative.
Over the last year, media attention has focused largely on the nationality of the victim, with images of American, British, and Japanese citizens beheaded available on nearly every media source. The Islamic State knows its history – just as we determine the going rate of kidnap groups, they too estimate ransom payments based on their hostages’ nationalities. Although abduction is mainly opportunistic, Islamic State-associated militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Somalia and Syria will continue to seek victims who garner the highest price and the greatest degree of global media attention.
Considering that foreign civilians will largely avoid Syria in 2016, the risks there should remain the same, although attempts to kidnap Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese fighters will likely increase due to their growing presence. Moreover, an increasing number of Islamic State recruits from Iraqi and Afghani refugee centres in Iran are being sent to Syria. Al-Nusra Front will also remain active in Syria – in both kidnap for political/ideological purposes and for commercial reasons. While both the Islamic State and Nusra Front are designated terrorist groups, the latter has shown greater interest and flexibility in hostage negotiations as its financial model differs from that of the Islamic State.
A new risk in 2016 will be the possibility of militant groups outside Iraq and Syria, such as in Nigeria, Libya, Yemen and the Philippines, executing foreign hostages in an effort to show solidarity with the Islamic State. Indeed, this pattern began to emerge in 2015: on 12 August, a Twitter account associated with militant group Sinai Province posted a photo purporting to show the dead body of Tomislav Salopek, the Croatian national kidnapped in Cairo on 22 July. The photo showed Salopek’s severed head atop his body and the black banner used by the Islamic State. The next day, the Islamic State – in an audio broadcast of its activities across the Middle East – said that, ‘Sinai Province, the soldiers of the caliphate killed the Croatian captive whose country participated in the war on Islamic State…’. Similarly, on 24 September, French tourist Herve Gourdel was beheaded in Algeria in a video published online by Jund al-Khilifah or ‘Soldiers of the Caliphate’ who pledged loyalty to Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on 13 September. Breakaway groups newly pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State have a clear incentive to commit headline-grabbing atrocities that give them recognition in an increasingly crowded market.
Concurrent with this shifting threat landscape, Aegis Response is now seeing a changing form of negotiation. Aegis Response has new tools at its disposal to get off the back foot and gain control. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to share this knowledge with any individual or organisation travelling to a region where there is a high risk of kidnap for ransom. Moreover, it is increasingly important that victims share their experiences, as is the need for a better dialogue process between the insurance industry and the network of global response companies.
Aegis Response is a Kidnap for Ransom (K&R) and Threat Extortion Response Service, led by a senior management team with over 50 years’ combined experience of successfully resolving hundreds of response cases worldwide.
Brittany Damora is the Senior Operations Manager at Aegis Response and Lottie Catto is an Operations Manager.
Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.