Kidnap response: immediate priorities for aid agencies
by Mark Allison, Clayton Consultants, Inc June 2010

‘One minute we were heading to the airport, happy to be on our way home … next minute we were being bundled into a pick-up truck crowded with gun-toting bandits, AK47s pointed at our heads, racing off into the unknown.’ Almost 80 days later, after difficult and at times traumatic negotiations, one of the captives was brought safely home. The other was eventually released four weeks later. Both hostages believed that their captors were not aware beforehand that they were aid workers and simply targeted them because they were foreigners.

Accurate kidnap statistics are notoriously difficult to obtain and any reference to facts and figures has to be treated with caution. Based on published reports and limited unpublished data, it appears that some 79 NGO staff (national and international) were kidnapped in 2008.[1] The actual figure is certainly much higher, as the majority of kidnaps go unreported and published data is unlikely to accurately represent the picture for national staff. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), 78 NGO staff were kidnapped in Afghanistan alone, the vast majority of them (71) Afghan nationals.[2] Despite the lack of data, all aid actors undoubtedly face a serious kidnap threat. Prevention measures can mitigate the risk, but cannot remove it entirely.  Aid agencies therefore need to be ready to respond if things go wrong.

 

Crisis Management Teams

Crisis or incident management plans provide valuable guidance and ensure that essential actions are not forgotten in the heat of the moment. But what really matters are the people assigned to respond to the incident.

Most people do not like to admit that they find crisis situations challenging. It is therefore incumbent upon senior managers to critically assess their staff and themselves as crisis managers, allocate roles accordingly and address competency deficiencies through professional development and training. There will of course be situations in the field where there is little choice in the composition of the team dealing with a crisis, at least until support arrives. Whether in the field or back at Head Office, however, the foundations for good crisis management are laid at the recruitment stage, and built throughout the period of employment, with ongoing assessment, crisis management training and support.

Raising the alarm

Too often, plans for responding to a kidnap start from the point when there is confirmation that an incident has occurred. However, from a management perspective kidnaps are not always immediately obvious events. There are often no reliable witnesses, and hours or even days can be lost if a disappearance goes unreported and unnoticed.

Kidnaps can only be confirmed as such when there is unambiguous information that the act has been committed. This can be obtained either from a dependable eyewitness to the incident, or more reliably by contact from the perpetrators themselves, who will need to prove that they do indeed have the hostage (eyewitnesses must be treated with caution. Their information may be inaccurate or they may deliberately try to mislead). Until then, the abductee is simply missing.

This period of uncertainty is when management teams often make their first serious mistake by prevaricating and failing to make quick decisions, which can lead to problems if the situation quickly deteriorates. For example, if the kidnappers make first contact through a telephone call to an unprepared family member, they will be shocked and upset; if they discover that the agency knew beforehand that something had happened, and failed to inform them at the earliest possible moment, they will also be extremely angry. This is likely to lead to a loss of trust and may prompt the family to take matters into their own hands, which is likely to make the situation worse.

 

Family

If, after enquiries have been made, there are sufficient grounds for assuming that a kidnapping has taken place, the decision to inform the victim’s family must be taken and acted on quickly. This raises difficult questions. How long is a reasonable timeframe for investigating the lost contact? What can be regarded as ‘the earliest possible moment’ for informing the family? Which family members should be contacted? The form of contact is also important. Is it possible to notify the family in person? If so, who should do this? The traditional approach is for the most senior manager available to do it face-to-face, but this might not be practical or even possible. If the family contact lives in another country, who is best placed to deliver the bad news? In many countries, the police have official responsibility for informing the family, though this should not preclude an approach from the hostage’s employer.

An appropriate member of the CMT should be responsible for family liaison and should maintain a regular schedule of contacts, even when there is no new information to report. The family should also be advised that there will be certain details that cannot be divulged, for operational security reasons. It is also essential to stress the importance of not talking about the situation to the media or anyone outside the immediate family.

Informing families of national staff should be slightly less complex as there are fewer options to consider. However, whether national or international, families need to be given clear information about the situation: events (as far as they are understood), and the actions being taken to deal with the situation. The family must also be briefed on what to expect in the event of a call from the kidnappers, and need to know what to say and what not to say.

Families of national staff are more likely to carry out their own investigation and may even conduct their own negotiations if they are able to make contact with the kidnappers. It may not be possible to prevent this and it can be damaging if not properly handled. Local families can have better contacts and networks, which in some cases might be able to help. It is important in such circumstances to coordinate all activities with the family and to share with them any relevant professional advice which the agency may be receiving.

In practical terms, it makes sense to check if the family has had any contact with the family member in question, particularly if family members are in the same country. But this should be done carefully in order to avoid alarming or frightening them unnecessarily. The opening line is therefore very important, and the caller needs to give due attention to the form of words they use. If they have had no recent contact, the family will naturally want to know as much as possible; again, great care must be taken here. It is important at this point not to speculate about what might have happened and instead to remain positive and optimistic. The family will inevitably make their own enquiries. This can be immensely helpful, though it can also create problems later in terms of managing information flows.

 

First contact

Contact from the perpetrators may come at any time, from minutes to months after the abduction, and could be in spoken or written form. It is therefore important to be prepared to receive that contact, and the priority is to prepare for contact by telephone. Phone contact will provide an opportunity to glean vital information from the kidnappers and should not be wasted. Every possible recipient of such a call needs to be briefed. The call-in point will depend very much on the kidnappers’ preferred modus operandi. If they want to achieve dramatic effect and create an emotional response, they may call the family. If they have a no-nonsense approach and want to get down to business quickly, they are likely to call the agency.

When dealing with the first contact, listen and note down the information provided as well as any other details (gender, accent, attitude, coherence, background noises). If it is not provided voluntarily, it is very important to request proof of life, not only to determine if the hostage is alive but also to rule out hoaxers. The best proof of life is a live conversation with the hostage. This can be immediate and is normally a huge morale boost to hostage and family alike. Failing that, a question that can only be answered by the hostage is also a quick means of obtaining proof of life. Choose the question with care: questions like ‘What year did you get divorced?’ are not ideal because they might have a negative association. A question like ‘What was the name of your childhood holiday home in Scotland?’ is better as it evokes happy thoughts and is much more memorable. The question and answer should be easy to pronounce and simple to understand because the person at the other end of the telephone may have limited language skills. Be aware that the answer to the question may not come immediately if the hostage is not near the telephone. If the answer that comes back is incorrect, a second simpler question can be asked, as the first question may have been miscommunicated or the hostage may not have been able to remember the answer. Continued failure to answer proof of life questions correctly indicates that the hostage is either dead or the caller is not genuine. No matter what form it takes, the proof must be unequivocal, and must confirm beyond doubt that the hostage was alive at that moment in time.

Ensuring that the hostage is well, as well as alive, is essential: the kidnappers must be informed as soon as possible of any serious health problems and medical needs (including full details of any medication required). The hostage is a valuable asset, so it is unlikely that the kidnappers will ignore any serious health warnings.

 

The communicator

Normally it is preferable for an intermediary to act as the conduit for information between the management team and the kidnappers, who may also have their own intermediary. Generally referred to as the ‘communicator’, the intermediary should be of a calm disposition and articulate in the local language. He or she should be seen as a spokesperson only and should have no decision-making power. A trusted national staff member is an ideal choice, provided that they are not too closely connected with the hostage. Changes in intermediaries should where possible be avoided as these can be unnerving for the kidnappers and any rapport and trust that might have been established over the course of previous conversations may be lost.

Identifying and briefing the communicator is an urgent priority. Once this is done, all phone calls from the kidnappers should be routed through that person. If known at the time of first contact, the person receiving the first call should provide the kidnappers with details of the preferred contact point.

 

Practical matters

There are also practical considerations. The communicator should have a dedicated phone for all contact with the kidnappers, and a device to record these calls. A second phone may be needed for contact with members of the CMT. If possible, each CMT member should also have a telephone dedicated to dealing with the incident, in order to create a clear division between routine business and the kidnap response itself.

To ease the functioning of the CMT, a dedicated and lockable meeting room is preferable so that the business of managing the crisis can be separated clearly and securely from routine matters. The room should have dedicated phone lines, adequate IT equipment and support, as well as sufficient wall space for white boards and wall charts so that all important information can be clearly displayed and logged. Information from wall charts and white boards must also be captured in electronic format in order to ensure that it is not lost when the information is refreshed.

 

Conclusion

A crucial early objective in managing a kidnap response is to establish a strong position from which to conduct future negotiations. This article sets out the immediate priorities to that end (there are other important aspects, such as dealing with the media, but these are outside the scope of this paper). Inevitably, though, kidnaps are often lengthy and difficult events, stretching from days to weeks, months or even years, making long-term demands on everyone involved, including the hostage’s colleagues and relatives. Nor does the agency’s responsibility end when the kidnap is resolved: the victim’s return to normal life is likely to be a difficult process, and will need sympathy, support and understanding.

 

Mark Allison is Senior Consultant, Clayton Consultants Inc


[1] Risk Statistics 2008, Clements International,www.clements.com.

[2] Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) Quarterly Data Report Q4 2008, p. 6.