AMU Homeland Security Intelligence Opinion Terrorism

Kidnapping and Piracy Escalation Alarms International Community

By Jenni Hesterman
Originally published September 22, 2008

Simon Maina / AFP-Getty Images. A Canadian Navy sailor boards a U.N. World Food Program cargo ship as it enters Somalia waters. The ship was accompanied by an anti-pirate escort as it carried food aid.

If you travel or work internationally, take heed–kidnapping and piracy are the hottest new fundraising tactics for criminals and terrorists. You are worth more to the kidnappers than you may realize. And although kidnappings are mostly reported in areas of conflict, unrest or already experiencing terrorist activity, the steep revenues associated with this crime will no doubt attract nefarious profit seekers around the globe.

Somalia is an area of significant concern. A nation in turmoil for over 17 years, the country now also faces major health epidemics, and the international community has responded with health care workers and medical supplies. Unfortunately, a rash of kidnappings and recent brazen acts of piracy off the Somali coast has led to the withdrawal of critical medical aid and support. Local and federal police, operating in a country with a weak rule of law and significant corruption, are unable or unwilling to engage and address the issue. To its credit, the Somali government refuses to pay ransom when their officials are abducted, and encourages foreign governments with kidnapped citizens not to pay the exorbitant ransom as a way to de-escalate the problem.
A few weeks ago, Islamist insurgents who call themselves the Mujahideen of Somalia, abducted 2 journalists (Canadian and Australian) and are now demanding over $2M for their safe return. The group has successfully been using Al Jazeera as their outlet to broadcast demands and tapes of the victims. Unfortunately, unconfirmed reports indicate this kidnapping was an inside job, with the journalists’ Somali bodyguards acting as accessories. In a country where any dirty deed will be done in exchange for a $10 hit of khat, a chewable narcotic, journalists, health workers and diplomatic personnel must be on highest alert for their personal safety.
Piracy has escalated significantly in 2008. The problem is particularly prevalent in the Horn of Africa, home to 90 million people and hundreds of miles of coastline. Somalia is in a strategic location, sitting right the entrance to the Gulf of Aden, which leads to the Suez Canal. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has reported more than 50 attacks/attempted attacks in or near the Gulf this year, up from just 13 for all of 2007. On Sept 18th, two ships in the Gulf were boarded by pirates: a Greek ship with a crew of 25 and a ship from Hong Kong, also with a crew of 25. The IMB believes these are well coordinated and planned attacks, with 3 “mother ships” providing command and control in the Gulf. The pirates are well trained and operate in a paramilitary manner, wearing camouflage and carrying automatic weapons, rocket launchers and grenades. An international maritime coalition is patrolling the waters and boarding ships prior to entry into the Gulf, attempting to provide safe passage.
Over to Afghanistan, another hotbed of kidnapping activity. In addition to its $4B a year narcotics trade and new designation as the #1 producer of cannabis in the world, the Taliban is now raising at least $10M per year through ransom. This activity started 2 years ago, when Italian Gabriele Torselo was targeted and pulled off of a hijacked bus by the Taliban, who eventually secured over $1M for his release. Having met with success, the Taliban struck again just months later, kidnapping another Italian national. This time, in addition to demanding a ransom, they asked for the release of 6 Taliban prisoners, a request that was met by President Karzai. The kidnappers did not honor their promise for safe release, and beheaded one of the prisoners. After coming under severe criticism by the international community for negotiating in this manner with terrorists, Karzai has never again agreed to release prisoners.
Kidnappings are still happening in Afghanistan on a regular basis. In June, Johan Frekhaus, a construction executive, was kidnapped by the Taliban. A very unlikely target, he’d spent 9 years in Afghanistan, had long hair and a beard and is fluent in Dari. Pulled over at a checkpoint, he was abducted when the guards found his French passport, which he’d hidden in the vehicle. He was held for 3 weeks and French authorities reportedly paid $1.3M for his release.
Finally, Israel is facing a new kidnapping challenge. The Counter Terrorism Bureau announced that Palestinian and Hizbollah terrorists are in final stages of a plan to kidnap tourists in Sinai and transport them to the Gaza Strip, possibly through a secret tunnel connecting the two. This is particularly important since Rosh Hashanah is just weeks away–a time when many Israelis travel to Sinai. The Israeli government has asked their citizens in Sinai to immediately return home, and they have restricted travel to Sinai for all military members and their families. However, enforcing these restrictions will be difficult; under agreement with Egypt, Israel cannot close the border crossing.
Next blog: Pointers on how to avoid or survive kidnapping from government agencies and law enforcement experts.
About the Author
Jenni Hesterman is a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism expert. She is a senior analyst for The MASY Group, a Global Intelligence and Risk Management firm that supports both the U.S. Government and leading corporations. She is also an adjunct professor at American Military University, teaching courses in homeland security and intelligence studies and is a contributing editor for The Counter Terrorist Magazine.
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