With increasing numbers of engineers working on overseas projects in recent years, Jenny Carter-Vaughan assesses the option of taking out kidnap and ransom insurance


Author: Jenny Carter-Vaughan, chief executive, Expert Insurance

Incidents involving kidnap for ransom have recently been dominating the headlines. The situation in Syria, Libya and Iraq has created a maelstrom of criminal activity which has delivered western hostages to the front pages of our national newspapers and provided hours of prime-time viewing on broadcast media. The question many people living and working in the affected areas are asking is whether these atrocities are any more of a problem now than they have been in the last few years.

It is fair to say that the unrest in this region since the Arab Spring has been palpable. However, this is a region of the world that has long been unstable and fanatics have always been drawn to the area. Those who dominate today’s headlines are arguably no more or less zealous in their bigotry than those who have gone before them.

There has been a long history of kidnapping for ransom in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite what the media might have you believe, incidents of kidnapping this year are no higher than they have been over the preceding few years. There is a high level of danger in certain areas and the traveller (and often local) needs to be actively aware of their vulnerability and plan for safety. However, this is an ever-present level of risk that has not increased.

So what has changed? Whilst it is true to say that the actual number of kidnaps has not grown, the profile and the ferocity of the crime has mutated because of the fundamental change in the rationale behind the crime.

Until quite recently, kidnap victims were usually abducted by small-time criminals looking to make a quick and relatively small return from their nefarious activities. It was known that certain nationalities were more receptive to the idea of negotiating and paying a ransom demand. The people from these countries were certainly targeted more often than others, such as UK nationals.

Typically, kidnap for ransom was carried out quietly, away from the world stage and cases very rarely made the local news, let alone the national or world news. There were frequent incidents of kidnapping, but those that did were very much in the minority – high-profile captives such as Terry Waite and Brian Keenan were notable examples.

The rise of social media

That situation has now changed thanks mainly to social media, the internet and widespread access to communication devices such as smartphones. Criminals are more socially aware, better connected and certainly better informed. They know the value of a western hostage and, importantly, they have access to the means of trading a hostage in ways that they could not have dreamed of even a few years ago.

Whereas the only possibility for making money out of a kidnap situation was to demand money from the family or employer, today the modern low-level criminal has options. In the past, a demand for a ransom payment inevitably exposed the criminals to the prospect of arrest or death. Nowadays, access to other markets can provide them both with greater anonymity and the ability to cash in on their crime without detection.

Most western governments refuse to negotiate with terrorists. This is partly based on the school of thought which says that ransom payments fuel not just terrorist and criminal activities, but if you pay one ransom demand you become a soft target for more. Thus, in solving the immediate crisis, you have simply paved the way for more of the same. However, the net result of this stance is that the perpetrator is now much more likely to look instead to other sources to make a financial gain. Thanks to the internet and social media, low-level criminals can leverage their gain by selling hostages to organised gangs, to local crime lords, to terrorists and eventually to serious fanatics such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS. In some cases, foreign nationals are being targeted for kidnap specifically for sale to the more ruthless terrorist groups.

While money may still be the overriding incentive for the crime at the bottom of the chain, the raison d’etre changes as the victim is passed on to others. The higher you go up the chain, the less the money matters. More significantly, the chances of the victim being released alive also decreases. While local criminals take hostages to fund food for their families, the terrorists tend to be driven less by greed and more by the zealotry of their chosen cause. Ultimately, the end result is a kidnap situation where there is no hope.

Al-Qaeda and, more recently ISIS, may publicly demand a fancifully high ransom for their hostages, but for them the real prize is the oxygen of publicity – so helpfully provided by 24-hour news coverage around the globe. Once an organisation takes over the ownership of a hostage, death in front of the world’s media becomes largely inevitable. Even appeals by respected religious leaders of the same faith or from the victim’s country might not carry sufficient weight to prevent the situation eventually ending in a very public death.

The human at the centre of the crime is devalued and exists not as a person, but as a commodity that can be traded for air time on worldwide television or for use in internet propaganda. A live western hostage in the soap opera of life and death places the fanatic’s cause at the centre of worldwide debate. It is also a fantastic recruitment tool which is both efficient and far-reaching. This makes the inevitable death of a hostage more rewarding than any ransom for cash.

Kidnap and ransom policy

Some commentators have said that the sale of kidnap and ransom cover has encouraged this crime. However, the ability of the kidnappers to raise high sums for a victim without troubling the victim’s employer or family negates this argument. In fact, the recent transmogrification of this crime into a fanatic’s tool of choice has resulted in a kidnap and ransom policy becoming more of a necessity for those people travelling to or working in these troubled parts of the world.

The benefit of a kidnap and ransom policy is often the ability to be able to respond to a terrorist situation quickly. This is often something the local authorities cannot or will not do. And there is no point in relying on the bureaucrats and politicians back home to move quickly – that is if they are prepared to get involved at all.

Kidnap and ransom insurers nurture contacts in areas where kidnapping is rife so that in the event of a kidnapping, they are able to access local knowledge and quickly identify the hostage’s captor. They can then open and conclude negotiations for release of the victim before a bureaucrat, local or at home, has read the manual to decide on an appropriate response. It is this ability of insurers to act quickly that can often save the day. The real trick is to get the victim back prior to them being offered for sale to a party whose agenda is focused on propaganda rather than economics.

Jenny Carter-Vaughan (2)An expert on Kidnap and Ransom Insurance, Jenny Carter-Vaughan is the founder and managing director of Expert Insurance Group, based in Uckfield East Sussex. Established in 2001, the firm specialises in K & R cover for companies in the mining, oil, gas and engineering sectors. A good-quality kidnap and ransom policy is an essential travelling companion if you are planning on visiting or working in a troubled part of the world. For further information, help or advice, call KR Expert on +44 1825 7 45410.

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  Author: Jenny Carter-Vaughan, chief executive, Expert Insurance Incidents involving kidnap for ransom have recently been dominating the headlines. The situation in Syria, Libya and Iraq has created a maelstrom of criminal activity which has delivered western hostages to the front pages of our national newspapers and provided hours of prime-time...