Kidnapping Primer

One critical element when discussing personal security, especially in the developing world is to have an understanding of the various types of kidnapping that exist and the associated mitigation and prevention strategies that you can employ.

First off, it’s important to note that in the US in particular and most of Western Europe kidnapping for economic or political reasons is a relatively rare crime. One exception is “Tiger Kidnapping” which is prevalent in parts of Europe.

Furthermore an overwhelming number of kidnapping incidents are resolved and usually quickly. This is not true in developing countries so those who work or travel there need to be aware of the associated risks and the methodologies used.
First off let’s discuss the primary types of kidnappings in the US and then move on to the variations prevalent elsewhere in the world.

Parental/Custody Kidnapping: These incidents, which make up the majority of the kidnappings in the US arise from custody disputes where a parent or other relative abducts a child or children.

Predatory Kidnapping: An abduction where the victim is taken by a predator to commit a sexual or other violent crime where there is no economic motivation. These incidents are the reason why many crime prevention experts in the US warn about the risk of being taken to “crime scene 2”.

Other types of kidnapping which are more prevalent in developing nations:

Kidnap for Ransom: a traditional kidnapping where the victim is abducted and held while the victim’s family or employer is contacted and a ransom is demanded.

Express Kidnapping: Sometimes also called a lightning kidnapping. This is an increasingly prevalent crime where the victim is selected quickly and held for a short period of time usually from several hours to a day or two. Sometimes several days. The victim is typically taken to ATM machines and made to withdraw the daily maximum. In some cases the victim’s family may also be required to pay a small ransom.

Political Kidnapping: Kidnapping a victim or victims with the intent to exchange them for prisoners being held by the authorities or for some political concession from the government.

Virtual Kidnapping: Not really a kidnapping at all but more an extortion. The “kidnappers” identify when a potential victim is incommunicado for a particular period of time usually due to travel, being in a movie or similar event. They then contact the victim’s family and claim to be holding the victim and demand a small ransom to be paid immediately. The family typically panics and unable to reach the victim, pays the ransom.

Tiger Kidnapping: This is a bit of an exception to my comments above as this crime is somewhat prevalent in the Republic of Ireland and the UK. Typically the victim is a bank manager or other financial services manager with access to cash or other valuables. In these cases the victim’s residence is invaded and the family held hostage. While the family is being held by part of the kidnap gang the bank manager is taken to his place of business and forced to turn over cash or other valuables to secure the release of his family.

There are also some rarer types of kidnapping that most expatriates and travelers are unlikely to encounter:

Revenge kidnappings: these most often occur to persons involved in some type of criminal activity — often done by one criminal group against members of another in order to send a message. These incidents also occur occasionally in areas where there are family, tribal or clan rivalries but again are usually restricted to members of the rival clan.

Bridal kidnappings: In some parts of Central Asia this is still used as a mating ritual of sorts. A man kidnaps a woman as his prospective bride and holds her for several days. At this point her honor is called into question and her family agrees to her marrying the kidnapper.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but most other types of kidnap events could likely be classified as a subset of the above types or refers to a tactic for kidnapping such as miracle fishing kidnaps or mass kidnaps.

To Resist or Not to Resist — That is the Question

One question that often comes up is whether or when to resist a criminal.  There is no clear-cut answer as it depends a lot on the situation and the individual involved.  Generally though most people agree that pure property or economically motivated crimes should not be resisted.  If the criminal just wants your money or jewelry or whatever property you have its best to turn it over without delay.  You should never put your life at risk for property.  In many places in the world criminals are armed and will use violence at the slightest provocation.

If the criminal is a violent physical crime against your person such as an assault, attempted rape, etc. the response is really a personal decision:  what will you tolerate or not tolerate?  Again will usually be driven by the situation as well.

An area that may be less clear is an abduction or kidnapping.  In these situations its important to know the local norms and the local security environment.  In the US for example kidnapping for ransom is relatively rare.  Many abductions are done by sexual predators or others that will do you harm regardless.  For this reason many experts recommend fighting back to prevent being moved to what is referred to as crime scene 2.  The abduction site is crime scene 1 and its probably better to resist at crime scene 1 than risk being taken to crime scene 2 where the predator will have more time and better control over you and the consequences may be much worse.  However when you shift this dynamic overseas the scenario may change dramatically.  In many international locations kidnap-for-ransom is rampant and in many of these places kidnap victims are usually released unharmed.  In Colombia as an example, there was a period when kidnapping was a very developed business and kidnappers generally kept their victims alive and managed their captivity well to be able to collect the ransom.  In some locations such as Yemen and Egypt’s Sinai Penninsula foreigners are kidnapped by local tribes as a bargaining tool in disputes with the government.  In these cases the victims are usually released unharmed after a short period.  In many locations where express kidnapping is common victims are kept for a few hours to drain their ATM accounts and then they are released.  Therefore it is reasonable to say there may be some abduction scenarios where not resisting increases the likelihood of a better outcome.

A similar – and often related issue to the abduction/kidnapping scenario is the risk of being tied up.  If there is a home invasion at your residence or if you in a place of business when it is robbed and the perpetrators want to tied you up or otherwise restrain you should you resist?  In some cases the criminals may want to do this simply for their own protection or to buy them more time to escape and they may mean you no harm.  Of course you have no way of knowing their intention and some experts will correctly advise you not to trust what they tell you.  Keep in mind that anytime you allow yourself to be restrained you reduce and probably remove your ability to fight back.  That’s a fairly significant consideration and something to think about before the incident occurs.
If you are the victim of an abduction or kidnapping chances are the perpetrator or perpetrators have done some planning and have chosen the time and place to attack so that circumstances favor them.  It’s also possible, in fact likely that they have committed this crime before.  Also – the actual point of abduction is the most volatile time in a kidnapping.  The criminals are on edge and worried about facing resistance so tensions are running high.  That said it may still present the best opportunity to escape as once they have control over you they will move you to a location where they plan to confine you and the level of control will be even greater.  At that point escape will likely be very difficult.

If you are fairly confused at this point or more confused than before you started reading that is normal.  Like so many personal security questions there is no one right pat answer, no on-size-fits-all solution.  There are only ideas and options to consider.  You need to think about the environment you are in, your personal triggers, thresholds and tolerances and weigh the different options.  Some thought should be given to these things before an incident ever occurs.

Unsolicited Approaches

Consider possible ulterior motives when approached by a stranger

In keeping with the themes of social engineering and elicitation its a good point to discuss the need to be wary of unsolicited approaches.  We also need to be mindful that these approaches are not necessarily made in person although they can be. In today’s technological world they are frequently also made via email or through social media.

These types of unsolicited approaches are made by criminals and other dangerous people for a variety of reasons.  Their objective is often fraud or theft of proprietary or classified information or other sensitive data.  Sometimes – as we saw in the case of the Colombian Facebook kidnapping gang it can be to facilitate more violent crimes such as kidnapping, armed robbery or rape.  Anytime people you don’t know seek you out – whether in person or online – you should look at the situation with a critical eye and question their motivation.

I once attended a counterintelligence presentation that addressed this issue.  The instructor – a short, overweight middle-aged man with a beard and glasses wearing suspenders and a bowtie – stepped to the podium.  He began by saying how when he was at home in the US he couldn’t get an attractive women to give him the time or to even spit on his shoes.  But when he goes overseas its another story.  He turns into Brad Pitt and beautiful women at the bar flock around him.  He gets phone calls from women and has them knocking on his hotel room door at all hours of the night.

The point is well made.  If these types of things don’t happen to you regularly at home why are they suddenly happening when you arrive in country X?  His presentation was focused on counterintelligence but the motivation may be different and probably related to separating you from your money in some way.  The broader concept is that you should be cautious of someone’s potential ulterior motives if you are approached unexpectedly.

Sometimes these are “cold approaches” that come largely out of the blue and some are “warm approaches” where the person may have gathered some basic information on you (often through social media or other Internet resources) and has – or purports to have – something either professional or personal in common with you.  This is one of the risks of posting too much on social media sites, especially concerning hobbies, interests and other things that can be used as a vehicle to get in contact with you, establish rapport and so forth.

These warm approaches can take places over time and may be very effective in getting you to gradually lower you guard.  It appears that was the case in the Colombia Facebook case.  The kidnap gang was apparently successful in convincing their wealthy male victims via Facebook that they were attractive women and by cultivating an online discussion and ultimately enticing them to come to a physical meeting where they were subsequently drugged and kidnapped.

There can also be “cold approaches” where you are approached by a stranger who initiates conversation without any prior connection of any sort.

Be wary – but not paranoid – if you are approached by a stranger.  Always look at the situation with a critical mind and ask yourself what ulterior motives or hidden agendas might exist.  You do not need to be rude but be cautious, especially if the situation seems unusual or outside your usual frame of reference.

Social Engineering: Implications for Your Security

Social engineering – the calculated manipulation and exploitation of people has historically been associated with cyber security issues.  Computer hackers found they could best get access to secure networks by targeting the weakest link – the human factor.

The same techniques used to get an employee to give up their password or provide other information to facilitate entry into a network can be used to gather information to compromise a person’s personal security as well.

Social engineering can use any one of a combination of several vectors to approach the target – telephone, email and in person being the three primary ones.

The example of the Colombian kidnapping gang that use Facebook to target their victims that we discussed in the last post is applicable here.  While there is limited information currently available on that incident it appears the the victims were cultivated over a period of weeks or months via the use of social engineering techniques on Facebook. The information available on Facebook gave the kidnap gang a foundation with which to build their approach.  Knowing something about their victim – his lifestyle, interests and hobbies would help them develop an online relationship and build rapport that would put him at ease.

Understanding and recognizing the techniques employed in social engineering is the best defense against them.  Here are some of the primary ones you may encounter:

Elicitation: Elicitation is a method of extracting information from an unwitting person by framing questions and statements in such a way that the person gives more information than they normally would or would intend to.

Pretexting:  The social engineer presents himself as someone other than who he really is in order to get information or drive a certain course of action.  In some cases this may mean the social engineer portrays himself as an authority figure.  In the case of the Facebook Kidnap Gang the kidnappers presented themselves as beautiful, available young women.  The anonymity of the Internet facilitates this immensely.

Influence and Persuasion Techniques:  By artfully exploiting human desires to be liked, reciprocity and obligation and the introduction of fear social engineers can compel people to reveal sensitive information or perform a certain action on their behalf.

This is a broad overview of social engineering – in particular how it relates to personal security.  Using clever techniques criminals can not only commit fraud and information theft, they can also facilitate violent crimes like kidnapping.  These tactics may be directed at the victim himself/ herself or at unwitting third parties like coworkers and domestic staff.  The first step to countering these techniques is being able to recognize them.

Social Networks and the Threat to Personal Security


Recent open source reporting indicates that the Colombian National Police just arrested a group of criminals that were using Facebook to identify, profile and target victims for kidnapping.  Initial reports the gang were using false Facebook profiles with pictures of beautiful women to target wealthy men as victims.  They would use information in the victim’s profile to assist them is selecting potential targets.  They would then engage the target in online discussions to build report and elicit additional information.  After a period of time, usually a few weeks they would arrange to meet the victim.  When the victim arrived at the pre-arranged meeting location he would be drugged – most likely with scopolamine – and moved to another location where they would be tortured and held for ransom.

This incident not only illustrates the vulnerability of revealing to much information about yourself in social network websites and to unknown persons online – which is the point of the post – but also touches on the use of drugs (probably Scopolamine in this case) in facilitating kidnaps which we discussed in “Devil’s Breath and the Ativan Gang” and also the process of victim selection, use of honey traps and utilizing technology to do a valuation of potential targets which have all been discussed to a degree previously.

The Facebook kidnapping gang is a clear example of what can go wrong if too much information is available in the public domain.  Even information that is can only be viewed by friends or contacts can compromise you if you “friend” or “link” to people you don’t know or don’t know well.

Social networking is a key part of most of our lives now and most people use if for personal or professional reasons or both.  The issue is not whether or not to use social networking but how to understand the vulnerabilities that exist and manage the type and amount of information available.

Social networks and the easy availability of online personal information is a huge force multiplier for stalkers, burglars, fraudsters, identity thieves,  social engineers of all types, terrorists and kidnappers make it much quicker, easier and safer to compile detailed dossiers on potential victims and exploit that information to their advantage.  Social networks also provide a vehicle to do a “cold approach” to a potential victim, establish rapport, gain additional information and arrange a physical meeting in person if desired.  That appears to be what occurred in this case in Colombia.

It also significantly reduces the need for physical surveillance of the target and the vulnerability to exposure that exists with that activity.  If the victim can be induced to voluntarily present themselves at a place and time of the criminal’s choosing it makes it much easier to carry out the kidnapping with limited risk.

The lesson here is not to eliminate the use of social networks which would be unrealistic given the role they now play in society.  The objective should be to understand the vulnerabilities that exist – especially in the context of your personal situation and risk profile.  Arguably a soccer mom from Annapolis, Maryland and a wealthy Colombian businessman have very different risks profiles and would need to manage their personal information differently.   While the soccer mom still has some level of risk, barring exceptional conditions (such as a stalking situation) her risk profile is much lower than the Colombian businessman.

Some things to consider regarding personal security when using social networks:

  • Security settings: most social networking platforms provide security settings that allow you to limit who is able to see what information about you and your personal network. Consider using these rather than the default settings.
  • Posting Potentially Compromising Information:  Not only can posting information about your drunken weekend put you in a precarious position with your employer, clients, etc. it also provides insight into your personal lifestyle that can be exploited.
  • The risk of using applications like TripIt when linked to social networks that share your travel itinerary.  This allows others to see where and when you are traveling.
  • The risk of using Foursquare and other GPS related applications that use your smartphone to identify and post your location to people in your social network.
  • Posting Photos:  Posting a portrait photo of yourself gives a potential assailant who has never seen you before the ability to recognize you.  Additionally many smartphone cameras also automatically geotag photos without the user being aware of it.  When the photo is posted it is possible to retrieve the geotag to determine where the photo was taken.

Social networking is here to stay and its role in our personal and professional lives will only grow. There are numerous positive aspects of social media and it can be leveraged to your benefit in many ways.

It’s important to look at the potential impact to your personal security based on an honest assessment of your personal risk profile.  You should consider limiting what you post, who you allowed into your social network or in some cases both depending on your situation.

The Miracle Fishing Kidnap Threat

We have repeatedly discussed the pre-operational steps that occur prior to most crimes from similar robbery to assassination and perhaps most notably kidnapping.  These steps include things like surveillance and target selection.  There is at least one type of crime where this does not occur however — at least not in the typical sense — mass kidnappings or “miracle fishing”.  Mass kidnappings often called miracle fishing or pesca milagrosa have been perhaps most common in Latin America, in particular Colombia although it does occur other places as well.

Classic pesca milagrosa reached its zenith in Colombia in the 1990s and early 2000s and was largely perpetrated by the two main leftist guerilla groups, the ELN and the FARC and to a degree by right-wing paramilitary groups.  Most mass kidnappings have involved victims being abducted at an improvised roadblock although in some cases kidnappers enter an establishment like a restaurant or hotel and take all the patrons hostage.

Mass kidnapping may be less common than other types of kidnaps and it may be more geographically isolated to some areas like rural Colombia — so why spend time talking about it?  One key reasons is that most typical proactive security measures have limit usefulness compared to other types of situations.

While there may be a number of ways it can occur (piracy and hostage taking in the horn of Africa or a mass kidnapping from a tourist park as occurred in Uganda) the classic example usually involves a roadblock or unlawful checkpoint — especially in the classic “miracle fishing” scenario in Colombia. The term “Miracle Fishing” refers to the way the perpetrators figuratively “cast a net” and gather “fish”.  They keep the big fish and throw back the little ones.

In these situations the kidnappers will typically set up a roadblock on a stretch of road – sometimes over the crest of a hill or at a blind curve in a road to avoid giving the victim advanced warning.  As cars pull up the roadblock the drivers and passengers are pulled from the vehicle and either assessed at the scene or more likely detained, moved from the scene to a secure location and assessed for valuation at that point.  During the assessment phase the kidnappers will try to determine the value if each victim and then keeping the high-value victims and releasing the low-value victims.  In some cases the valuation phase can be quite sophisticated to include using laptop computers and access to bank information.  One of the most noteworthy cases of miracle fishing involved the 1994 kidnapping of US agricultural expert Thomas Hargrove at a roadblock outside Cali, Colombia.  Hargrove subsequently spent 11 months in captivity.  The movie Proof of Life was largely based on the Hargrove case.  The movie dramatically depicts a miracle fishing/mass kidnapping incident.

In some cases victims are abducted in mass from a fixed location.  I know of one case anecdotally in the early 2000s  where the patrons of a roadside restaurant, also outside Cali  were kidnapped en masse.  They were given rubber boots and marched into the jungle.  There each person was assessed and the valuable fish were retained and the others released.

Its important to understand the potential risk of miracle fishing kidnaps because a lot of the things we may do for crime prevention and kidnap avoidance like watching for surveillance, varying routes, etc. will not necessarily help.  Situational awareness will still be important though.  If you come upon a roadblock suddenly you will have very limited time to determine your best course of action and probably very limited options.  We’ll look at assessing and dealing with roadblocks and checkpoints in the near future.

Devil’s Breath and the Ativan Gang

Manila — Home of the Ativan Gang

An alarming trend that has been occurring in different places around the world is the use of drugs in facilitating crimes like robbery, sexual assault and kidnapping.  These incidents have occurred in locations as varied as Colombia, the Philippines and India.

While most Americans may be aware of the use of drugs such as Rohypnol and GHB to facilitate date rape, many do not know how common these drugging incidents are overseas.

In May 2012 a tour guide in New Delhi was arrested for drugging and robbing lone tourists.  He met most of them in the area of the Chandi Chowk and Red Fort, offered them food laced with an unknown drug that incapacitated them and then robbed them and dumped them in remote areas.  While this particular modus operandi has not been that common in India it is very common in other areas.

Colombia is one of the best known locations for this type of activity.  Scopolamine – known locally as Burandanga – is used to facilitate crime by rendering the victim into a compliant, zombie-like state.  When the victim recovers he or she will usually have limited to know memory of the incident.  A recent documentary called the “The Devil’s Breath” brought the dangers of Scopolamine to a broad audience but this drug has been used for nefarious purposes in Colombia and neighboring countries for quite a while.  Methods of deployment can include everything from spiking food or drink to blowing it in the victim’s face.

In the Philippines the “Ativan Gang” (probably actually numerous groups using the same or similar methods) has preyed on victims by drugging them with Ativan and robbing them.  In some cases an attractive female will strike up a conversation with a lone male, go out for cocktails and spike his drink.  Then she and her accomplices will rob him.  In another variation a group of matronly older women will initiate a relationship with a tourist and invite him or her for a meal.  They will subsequently spike the food and or drink and rob the tourist.  There are other methods as well but these are two of the most prevalent.

Sometimes with these stories it can be difficult to separate truth from urban myth but there are enough verifiable incidents to establish that this is a concern — in particular in some of the locations mentioned.  The scary thing about this type of crime is that it can render even the strongest, most competent fighter helpless.  The only remedy is to be aware of this threat and practice avoidance.  Be wary of unsolicited approaches by strangers.  Some of these can be very convincing.  Don’t accept food, drink or chewing gum from anyone you don’t know well.  If you are at a bar or similar establishment don’t leave your drink unattended and monitor it carefully.  Also — going out in pairs or groups may also help guard against this type of threat.