Interview: Robert Macpherson on Abductions
How common are abductions in humanitarian work?
Without a doubt, the frequency of abductions in the humanitarian community is increasing. However, because most abductions are never publicized and there are no central reporting mechanisms, it's difficult to fix exact numbers.
Which countries are currently the most risky for aid workers in terms of abductions?
Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, Mexico, and Colombia get the majority of attention. I don't include Pakistan because at this point I don't feel it's overly risky for international staff abductions; national staff is another story, though. There's a great deal of press when a Westerner is kidnapped there, mostly because of the highly publicized political tensions between the United States and Pakistan. I'd rate countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and other Latin American states more risky, even if they don't get as much attention. People tend to focus on Mexico, without realizing the extent of narco-crime that goes on in the rest of the region. It's only a matter of time before the NGO community will be confronted with criminal kidnapping incidents there.
Have aid worker abductions changed over the past five or so years?
I suspect depending on who you talk to, you'll get different answers. Some of my colleagues say that there are more politically related kidnaps. I disagree. In fact, I believe it's exactly the opposite. The problem is when an international aid worker is kidnapped, the media attention is extraordinary. And since many of these abductions occur in politically-charged, conflict zones, there is often political motivation. But it's the far more frequent abductions you don't hear about, that are on the increase. Kidnap for ransom of national staff members, without a doubt, is very much on the rise. I'm amazed at how tightly the NGO community keeps a lid on abductions of national staff members. To ensure there's no misunderstanding, I applaud that lack of transparency. I'm currently engaged with an organization that had a driver abducted. If it becomes a matter of record that the driver was returned and there was a ransom or some other remuneration involved, you can only imagine what will happen to every NGO driver in the region.
Have most of the incidents you've handled been crimes of opportunity or well-planned and targeted abductions?
An intuitive answer to this question is roughly 50-50. Typically, the ones that involved international staff and became notable in the press were well-planned. But even abductions that don't make CNN usually have some element of planning, whether well-planned or not. To give you an example. In Haiti, people would be abducted and the ransom asked would coincidentally match the exact amount in their bank account. Obviously, some collusion between criminals and bank employees was occurring. That seems like good planning to me. But regardless of whether an abduction is well-planned or not, in the more than 20 abductions I've handled, and virtually every kidnap my colleagues have dealt with, there is one common factor in all of them. That is the victim established a routine and pattern. And even if they were warned to vary the routine, they refused and then suffered the consequences.
Have you found that organizations deal with an abduction differently, depending on if it's an international, national, or local staff member?
You should never get an NGO to answer this question directly. However, there has to be a difference in the way kidnaps are handled depending if it's national and international staff. To be clear, this should be the case. In the simplest context, it is important and essential to remember that an international staff member will always go home. The national staff member and his/her family will remain in the same place from which the victim was abducted. There are nuances that are associated with this fact that have to be considered in a number of ways. A kidnap negotiation is obviously a delicate event. The procedure for a national staff member is very complex. It's not so much in the actual negotiation or the engagement of insurance company crisis response personnel. It's in the more subtle areas of family security.
Some readers may not know about kidnapping and ransom (K&R) insurance. Could you briefly explain what it is and how it works?
K&R insurance is a way for an organization to have a means of assistance if a staff member is kidnapped. People tend to look on this insurance as a way to pay ransom. That's not exactly true. What K&R insurance provides are the services of professionals to assist with the abduction, including engaging in negotiations. K&R premiums vary and are based on the number of staff covered, whether they are international or national, the countries being worked in, and the coverage amount ($3 million is a good number, but a broker may limit an organization or business to less). Small and medium sized humanitarian organizations often do not have K&R insurance (whether because they don't know it's available or they believe budgets won't allow for it). This can put an organization and its staff at a high level of risk if they are working in a country where abductions are not rare events.
What roles do the employing organization, the family, and government (host and country the staff member is a citizen of) play in working with a K&R response company? Who ends up making the decisions?
It's easier to answer this question based on circumstance. For instance, if the victim is an American citizen, the FBI will provide assistance. However, it's in the detail of "assistance" that things become delicate. The FBI, or a government representative from most Western nations, will not engage in negotiations. This means when phone calls and messages are being passed back and forth with the abductors, it's not the FBI who is actually involved in the negotiation. Without hesitation, they are present and provide remarkably beneficial advice. But the actual discussions are accomplished by others. With international staff these negotiations are generally handled by professional response personnel who are associated with K&R insurance providers. In the case of national staff, the discussions may be carried out by the individual's family. I find that each event is different in certain processes, and gravitate toward the best way to handle the negotiation. At times, a family member is simply too emotional to be able to provide negotiations. Consequently, the insurance company responder may be the person who handles it.
So back to our kidnapped American, or other citizen from a Western nation. That nation will most likely be involved in some manner with the response. If the victim is from an emerging country, the response team from the organization's insurance company will have a much more prominent role. Also, it's important to note that I have rarely seen an incident involving the kidnap of either a national or international staff member that did not have the element of extraordinary cooperation between all parties. As in every situation, things start off a bit slow but very quickly people come together to accomplish the goal returning the victim to his or her family.
If you could give humanitarian workers three pieces of advice for avoiding being abducted, what would they be?
1.Vary your routine. It doesn't have to be overly burdensome or continuous, but ensure that if anyone is watching you they are never able to establish that you travel the same road daily, shop in the same market on the same day of the week, attend some type of social event at the same time, etc. As simple as this sounds, it is the one measure that will keep a staff member as safe as possible from a kidnapping.
2. Be observant. Most people, in fact I believe all people, have an intuitive sense for danger. Living in a safe society tends to diminish this sense. But if you're in a complex environment, listen to that inner voice and pay attention to it. It's easy to disregard attentive caution because no one wants to appear to be overly cautious or become embarrassed about a hunch that proves wrong. You need to override those feelings instead of overriding your intuition.
It's interesting. I've found that when I talk about safeguards to international staff who are working in a complex environment and they have their children with them, I have their absolute attention. However, if I were to speak to the same people when their children weren't around to worry about, and gave them the same advice, they wouldn't be paying as much attention.
3. Recognize your uniqueness. I'm amazed at the number Americans who I have met over the years who have spent time in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, or other high-risk environments who believe because of their tenure or ability to speak the language they can disregard many of the basics elements of personal security. This is simply not so. Particularly, in Middle Eastern nations, a foreigner is a foreigner and it begins and ends with that. The sad truth is that the majority of international staff kidnap cases I've been involved with have fallen into this category. People lived in the country for so long they began to believe they were immune to the same dangers as a consultant or someone who was newly arrived would face. In fact, this attitude made them more of a potential victim.
And if someone finds themselves abducted, what are your top three recommendations for getting through the ordeal?
Of course every incident is context dependent, but here are some general recommendations.
1. The first 24 hours are critical. The kidnappers are typically frightened themselves and can be volatile. Being quiet and cooperative is the best way to get through the event. Regardless of what you see and read – if you make a blind rush for freedom, in most cases it will not end well.
2. As soon as possible, attempt to establish your own routine. It may be something as simple as a bit of physical exercise, periods of quiet reflection, or anything that will help keep you calm.
3. Without being obtrusive, try to begin a very subtle dialogue with your kidnappers. Your goal is to attempt to humanize yourself as much as possible. The more you can engage with the abductors on a personal level, the more they begin to recognize you as an individual and consider their actions toward you. This takes time, but will happen. You'll find that some of the kidnappers will have nothing to do with you but there will be others who engage. Think about this and use it to your advantage.
Postscript: If you have additional interest in K&R insurance, check out a 2007 paper written by Meadow Clendenin for the Emory Law Journal. Lots of background on the history, nuts and bolts, and foreign policy implications of K&R insurance.