ZK: Apart from Somalia, what are the kidnapping hotspots in the world right now?
FB: Latin America is an area which often doesn’t get as much press, perhaps because people are a bit more used to the fact that kidnappings go on there.It is certainly one of the more ‘mature’ areas of the world for both respondents and the gangs themselves so in places like Colombia, Mexico, and to a lesser extent Venezuela and Peru there are still very, very high numbers of kidnappings going on. In addition to that South Asia is also significant, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan. One thing is that there is a differentiation between the kidnappings of local nationals and foreigners. If you take a place like Afghanistan there are a very high number of kidnappings of locals, particularly rich businessmen. In Pakistan too there has been an upward trend of targeting local middle class and rich nationals whereas the number of foreigners taken is actually very low. On the other hand, in Yemen, there are not a lot of locals being kidnapped and foreigners are targeted, either for ransom or political purposes. In Somalia, there would be a high number of kidnappings but, because of peoples’ increased awareness and the fact that there are fewer foreigners on the ground, there are fewer people to take. In general, areas suffering from insurgencies or serious security issues tend to become hotspots fairly quickly as groups try to raise funds from kidnappings.
ZK: Given that more and more kidnappings are taking place globally, it would seem that in this particular case crime does in fact pay, doesn’t it?
FB: Well, that’s a nice phrase to sum it up, but the fact is that it’s very difficult in this ‘industry’ to figure out exactly what’s going on. Some kidnappers do make fairly substantial sums from these acts, but there are instances in which they pay a serious price as well — such as when US commandos freed Danish hostages from Somali pirates recently while killing nine pirates.
ZK: Generally, how does one initiate contact with kidnappers? How do they get in touch with you?
FB: There is a general formula behind the mechanics of a kidnapping and certainly there is a structured approach to the kidnapping response resolution. There is the first contact from the kidnappers, and then there has to be proof of life before the actual negotiations begin and sometimes there can be a long gap between these steps.
The negotiation depends on whether the kidnappee has some sort of insurance or response capability lined up for them. Some people don’t have that at all and their family may get involved on their behalf [in the negotiation]. There have been numerous cases, such as in Mindanao, where aid workers, volunteers or priests have been kidnapped and they didn’t have professional security cover. In such cases, families go out, engage with local communities and try to track down the kidnappers themselves. They’ll hire police or ex-police officers to act as facilitators and negotiators. At the other end of the spectrum, one can deploy a case officer from a security company who will handle the case
ZK: What makes a good negotiator? What kind of training should one ideally go through?
FB: Experience — ideally, the responder has dealt with cases in different parts of the world and has experience dealing with different scenarios. There are companies with responders who have over a decade of experience. Ideally, agency or police experience would give people the prerequisite skills to go into the negotiations. With regards to personality, you need to be calm and have the ability to deal with highly stressed environments. The stress may come from the company, and of course from the families who are obviously closely involved in these situations. You have to be able to deal with a broad range of people and be able to adapt to very rapidly changing situations. You’ve also got to remain authoritative throughout the process because people will typically look to you to make decisions and guide them in situations where crucial decisions have to be taken. The responder has to keep his head when others may be losing theirs.
ZK: What sort of tools do kidnappers usually employ to pressurise the families into meeting their demands?
FB: Threats of killing or injury are the main tools they will look to employ. Different kidnap gangs can act in different ways and be more or less violent, but in general saying to a family that you’re going to hurt their loved one would put considerable pressure on them to pay the demanded ransom quickly. Then it’s up to the negotiator to guide them as to whether they think that these threats are real and to advise them on the best response. The central goal on part of the case officer or negotiator will of course be to do everything in his power to get the kidnapped person out safely in the least amount of time.
ZK: In your experience, who is the worst when it comes to treatment of hostages?
FB: There are some pretty violent gangs in all parts of the world and I wouldn’t like to pick one out and give them what they would probably see as ‘credit’ for hyper levels of violence. You do hear some pretty horrific stories. Some gangs are more mature and they realise that looking after the hostages is in their favour, but it depends on the organisation and whether they hold the kidnappees or sell them forward.
ZK: I know this is a sweeping statement, but is it better to be kidnapped by professionals as opposed to amateurs?
FB: Well, it’s a horrible situation either way but yes, if you’re dealing with a mature kidnap gang that is looking to extract the biggest ransom in a short length of time — which is their goal — and your goal is to obviously get the personnel in the shortest length of time with as low a ransom paid as possible, then it is in both parties’ interest to keep the person in good health. In cases where you’re dealing with amateur kidnap gangs you see major mistreatment.
ZK: What can a hostage do simply to survive captivity? If you’re in this situation, what do you do to just get through it?
FB: We recommend cooperation and compliance with the kidnappers, and actions like refusing food and water are not advised because that will antagonise the kidnappers and lead to mistreatment. We tell people to stay away from contentious subjects that could rile their kidnappers. Clearly, being kidnapped is a horrible situation and people want to get out of it as soon as possible, but when an opportunity for escape presents itself you have to be 100% sure it’ll work. There are instances when people who tried to escape have been recaptured and treated worse. The end goal is always survival.
ZK: And finally Mr Bomford if you were speaking to a family whose loved one has been kidnapped, what words of advice would you have for them? As to what sort of attitude they should keep in order to survive the ordeal because, obviously, for the person in captivity it is terrible but for the family the uncertainty would be horrific.
FB: It is a very, very difficult question to answer, but I would advise them to keep as calm as possible and trust in the fact that if there are people responding to it then they’re typically professional and, as I said, most cases are resolved peacefully. They have to hold on to hope and not give up no matter how difficult the situation gets.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 27th, 2012.
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