Most kidnap and ransom victims only recognise tell-tale surveillance patterns when it is too late and they have been taken prisoner. But David Venn believes most potential victims could be trained to spot the risks, preventing the crime from the outset.

Kidnapping is a global phenomenon and while there are well known hotspots, no country or person is immune. There are many elements of a kidnap and ransom (K&R) situation that are common to most, if not all, situations. That, however, does not mean they are any less traumatic for the victim, family and people involved in the resolution.

In an ideal world, neither family members nor corporate employees would be kidnapped in the first place. Various pre-planned security and security-related activities can help avoid such an event, but as with responding to the event itself, a structured approach is required.

When looking at the global picture of kidnappings, especially when deciding where and when to send employees, relying on reported statistics of kidnapping cases by country and region can be misleading. Incidents of kidnapping are often not reported to local law enforcement agencies due to fear of recriminations from the kidnappers or concerns over corruption. Therefore, companies and individuals should make preparations regardless of the perceived threat in a particular area.

Yet, despite the perception that foreign nationals and expatriate business people are the main ransom targets, a high proportion of all kidnaps are perpetrated against local nationals. This misperception is due, in part, to the large number of external agencies involved in foreign kidnappings such as the local, national and foreign governments and possible corporate involvement. Local victims are also often better equipped to deal with the situation due to a better understanding of local issues, judicial support and closer support networks.

The pattern stays the same

How kidnap for ransom situations differ, according to the country in which they are perpetrated, has been greatly exaggerated. All kidnappings follow a similar pattern. Regardless of what name a group of kidnappers may assign to themselves, such as guerrilla, political separatist etc, by definition they are all criminals as kidnapping is considered a crime in all responsible jurisdictions. While a kidnap in Iraq may be characterised by higher levels of violence than one in Africa, and a ransom demand in South America may be designed to generate larger amounts of publicity, the desire to make money from the threat of injury to an individual is a common feature.

The methodologies of kidnapping and the strategies employed to survive are similar across the world. The best line of defence for any person or company sending their staff to work in a country where kidnapping is a threat, is the establishment of preventative procedures - especially training.

Training can equip potential targets with knowledge about how to prevent becoming a victim. This can include cultural sensitivities, not sticking to a predictable routine, being aware of others in a neighbourhood, evasive driving techniques etc. Additionally, learning how to survive a kidnapping can also empower individuals to successfully survive an ordeal. Having a plan in place should a kidnap occur can also add comfort to both the victim and the associates handling the resolution.

The initial abduction often follows extensive surveillance of targets, with the most predictable or vulnerable target being eventually chosen to be the hostage. For example, one freed victim learnt from his abductors that he was one of eight people observed during a three-month period. It was his predictability had led to him being chosen. Routine in the life and lifestyle of executives and their families leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by kidnap gangs.

Breaking the habit

Since most business people live by calendars, diaries and flight or vehicle schedules, routine is one of the hardest habits to break. But even such simple changes as randomly selecting different routes to a place of work or entertainment can be most effective; similarly, changing timings, even by small amounts, can be equally useful. Abduction gangs do note these changes and may well conclude that another individual is easier to approach.

With routine may also be a lack of awareness of familiar surroundings. This is perfectly normal and most people go through their day mainly on "auto-pilot". However, kidnappers on reconnaissance themselves may produce noticeable patterns; a parked vehicle at a road junction or traffic light; a street vendor where none has been before etc.

Being aware of the risks and discussing them with security professionals can make a difference. Trust your instincts - do not suppress them. It is better to raise queries in advance than to regret not having done so from a cramped cell in a kidnapper's hideout. It is a fact that a high proportion of released victims, when talked through their ordeal, recognise, in retrospect, the signs of surveillance or even practise runs by abductors.

Additional physical measures can be put in place to provide some defence. Residential security systems, access controls at homes and offices, or selecting appropriate vehicles to travel in can all help reduce the risk.

It is important for kidnap victims to understand that they are part of a process and that they represent a material gain to the hostage-taker. Therefore it is not generally in the interests of the kidnap group to damage their goods.

The victim needs to understand that they will be held for some time and that, while distressing and uncomfortable, a long period of imprisonment is not necessarily a reason to be unduly concerned.

Equally, it is not uncommon for multiple but separate victims to be held simultaneously and for negotiations to be carried out with different victim groups in parallel.

Survival techniques

Kidnap victims can help themselves survive the abduction by accepting food and clothing that are offered by the kidnappers and by attempting to build some rapport with them. Equally, is it important that they do not believe everything they are told by the kidnappers, while also making sure not to antagonise them. Victims should try to remember that all efforts are being made to secure their release. Knowing that you have a K&R policy in place helps to reassure victims that their family and/or company will have support in managing the negotiations and that their welfare is a priority to a group of specialists, as well as their immediate relatives and colleagues.

The possibility of a kidnap is a business risk like any other and if the risk is assessed as sufficiently high then steps can be taken to insure against it. Having plans and an insurance policy in place can also be comforting for those people managing the ransom negotiations, be they relatives or an employer. Again, training is invaluable for preparing people for what will happen in a kidnap situation. Understanding the process, how long different stages take and being prepared for threats and scare tactics, can all help the management team approach the negotiations calmly and logically, thereby speeding up its resolution.

Normally, in a corporate or government situation, a small team with responsibility for the incident is formed on the ground. These teams can include family members and are often backed by high level resources as appropriate. A dialogue will ensue between the kidnappers and the representatives of their victims, demands will be made, proof of life being demanded and offers and counter-offers being sent until an agreement is reached. This process can be relatively short, a few days, to very long indeed, nearly a year.

Following the successful release of the victim, which occurs in most situations, especially if the victim does not make an attempt to escape, post-release counselling can be a key part of the overall process. A stressful event such as a kidnap, where human emotions have been deliberately manipulated, can cause severe reactions from both the victims and the management team.

Incidents of kidnapping are not decreasing and look unlikely to in the short-term. While high profile examples of political hostage taking of foreign nationals are the most visible kidnaps these days, the majority are primarily for financial gain. The profile described above is common to most kidnap situations and a structured, professional approach is the proven method for the safe and timely return of those individuals caught up in this crime.

- David Venn is a kidnap and ransom consultant for Kroll.