2017 kidnapping trends in review

The well-established crime of kidnapping-for-ransom saw notable developments in 2017. Islamist extremist groups found their kidnapping operations stifled by local pressures, the threat of piracy ebbed and flowed in major maritime threat zones, and the crime spread to new locations in countries with long-established kidnapping hotspots. Alongside this dynamism, 2017 also saw broad continuity in trends at the global level. Most perpetrators did not fundamentally alter their methodology, targeting patterns or negotiation techniques. Nevertheless, understanding regional and local differences will remain key to mitigating the threat.

Three key developments

A marked decrease in Islamist extremist kidnaps of foreigners was one of the major developments in kidnapping trends. Control Risks recorded four such incidents in 2017, compared with 20 in 2016. This downward trend was not the result of a strategic shift in ideology ordered by the highest echelons of global Islamist extremist movements. Instead, it was entirely driven by local pressures on individual affiliate groups.

The principal example of this is the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). On account of its offshore activity, the group was responsible for 70% of Islamist extremist kidnaps of foreigners in 2016. However, the group’s holding of a large number of victims and its participation in a five-month-long siege in Marawi (Lanao del Sur) in 2017 are likely to have overstretched its resources and led to a lull in kidnaps. Meanwhile, Islamic State (IS)’s previous demonstrations of brutality against foreign kidnap victims in Syria likely deterred foreigners from entering IS-held areas in 2017, shrinking the group’s pool of potential targets. It was also diverted by significant military operations against its territory. Other groups around the globe were similarly affected by local issues.

This downward trend will not last. Local pressures on such groups have a “push and pull” effect on the kidnapping threat. For example, the ASG now requires income to help regain its losses in Marawi, and the group has relied heavily on kidnapping for cash in the past. Meanwhile, by the end of 2017 IS had lost more than 90% of the territory it once held in Syria and almost all of its territory in Iraq, equating to a proportional loss of income from extortion. The group is therefore likely to return to kidnapping to bolster both its dwindling finances and its public image among its supporters. Given its territorial losses, it will need to become more operationally ambitious to do so.

Meanwhile, in other militancy-prone areas of the world, competition between regional affiliates of IS and al-Qaida, as well as local political pressures, will see groups experienced in kidnapping return to the tactic to raise their profiles.

The maritime kidnapping threat proved one of the most dynamic aspects of the crime. As noted above, the ASG offshore kidnap threat – a significant development in the 2016 kidnapping environment – all but disappeared from the Sulu Sea while the group focused its operations and resources elsewhere. Around the Horn of Africa, Somali piracy made a brief comeback early in the year, reminding us that the underlying drivers of the crime still exist and will manifest periodically. The Gulf of Guinea remained the global hotspot for offshore kidnapping, but there were fluctuations in the pattern of the threat in the region. The highest monthly number of kidnaps and attempts was recorded in March (nine) and December (eight). Between November and March, we expect higher rates of the crime as the Harmattan (a very dry, dusty wind) reduces visibility at sea and facilitates piracy activity. However, we also recorded increased pirate activity outside of the traditional Harmattan period – October ranked joint second alongside December, with eight kidnaps – indicating that visibility is only one factor and that the kidnapping threat remains unpredictable.

In certain African countries, new risk areas emerged away from long-established high-threat zones, proving again that the threat on the continent warrants close monitoring. The Niger Delta states have long been the epicentre of the kidnapping threat in Nigeria, but in 2017 Kaduna became the second worst-affected state, with 11% of the country’s recorded incidents. Several of these were high-profile abductions of groups of foreigners during long-distance road movements. A similar trend emerged in Libya, as several abductions of foreigners in the south-west demonstrated an expansion of the threat from urban centres in the north, where kidnaps and detentions involving commercial and NGO employees are typically recorded. In Mali, the frequency and number of kidnaps in central and south-western states increased. Traditionally kidnaps are most often recorded in the northern half of the country, where Islamist extremist groups are based.

Global trends belie local nuances

At first glance there appeared to be some notable changes in the global distribution of kidnaps, but in reality the situation is similar to 2016.

A decline in the number of reported incidents in the MENA region in 2017 saw the global share attributed to the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa increase. However, in reality, the number of cases recorded in the latter two regions was similar to 2016, and MENA’s 10% share of global incidents is likely a gross underrepresentation of reality. The media’s focus on famine, chemical attacks on civilians and military operations in the MENA region means kidnapping is almost certainly underreported.

Asia’s decline from 31% of global kidnaps in 2016 to 22% in 2017 does not reflect an improvement in the kidnapping threat in that region. The total number of recorded cases was lower in 2017 as a result of media fatigue with the crime in the highest-risk countries. As an indication of the expanding threat, we recorded incidents in more countries than in 2016.

Many of the other broad kidnapping trends we noted were consistent with those we have come to expect at a global level for the past several years:

  • Pervasiveness of the crime: Control Risks recorded kidnaps-for-ransom in 87 countries last year, demonstrating that the crime is not isolated to a few problem areas.
  • Perpetrators: Financially motivated criminals continued to dominate kidnapping in every region. Incidents perpetrated by other armed groups – insurgents, militias, separatists, leftist revolutionaries and guerrillas – eclipsed those by Islamist extremists in number, but not in international coverage. This gives a skewed perception of the true sources of the threat.
  • Victim types: Kidnappers’ targeting preferences were unaltered in 2017, with local nationals representing 94% of victims. Most kidnappers were deterred from targeting foreigners by the latter’s security measures. However, some experienced groups, lured by the potential for higher ransom payments, retained the intent and capability to abduct them. Kidnappers did not typically choose targets based on their employment sector, but instead on their perception of the victim’s wealth.
  • Kidnap durations: Driven by the cyclical demands of the kidnapper business model (a high turnover of short-duration kidnaps), 85% of kidnaps were resolved in less than a week. Most kidnappers sought to resolve a case quickly to minimise their risk of arrest and to enable them to move on to the next victim. Nevertheless, 4% of cases lasted longer than a month. The longest case to resolve in 2017 lasted 2,073 days (more than five-and-a-half years), demonstrating that the other end of the case duration spectrum can be extreme.

Monitoring a dynamic threat

Control Risks’ data from 2017 demonstrated that at a global level kidnapping remains pervasive, and that kidnappers continue to rely on established tactics because they still work. However, our constant monitoring of the crime revealed the dynamic local issues that can have an impact on the threat. Understanding these local differences, and when and how they are likely to evolve, is key to mitigating the threat to employees.