Roy Ramm describes the role of the specialist...

Roy Ramm describes the role of the specialist consultant in assessing the risk and protecting the vulnerable

Every so often the media report a threat to kidnap a rich and famous celebrity. The alleged plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham was the most recent. Some such reports are just tabloid hype, but others are genuine, and real fear exists. It is not therefore surprising that more and more executives, celebrities, sportsmen and other people in the public eye are asking themselves and their organisations whether they might become a target.

Fact or fiction?
Changes in the political landscape and the relaxation of border controls over the last few years have seen the emergence of types of crime that were previously uncommon in the UK, although prevalent in places such as the former eastern bloc countries. As a consequence, the instances of kidnap and extortion in the UK have increased. The incidence of gun crimes has also risen dramatically. Metropolitan forces are now seizing up to five times more weapons than they were just three years ago. Firearms, including modern automatic weapons, are readily available to criminals. So the determined kidnapper in the UK has the ready means to enforce a threat.

Internationally, in the currently unsettled political climate, kidnap remains a dangerous threat, and presents a serious risk for individuals who need to travel to high-risk areas. Traditionally, South America has been regarded as a high-risk area for kidnap and extortion. Now, many countries in Africa, South East Asia and Eastern Europe are also on the list.

Kidnap is an extraordinarily dangerous and complex offence. There are high levels of risk at the time of capture, and at later stages if hostage takers have underestimated the difficulty of holding captives for protracted periods, or have been careless in allowing their faces to be seen by their victims. The release process may also heighten kidnappers’ tension. The resulting risk of death or serious injury is extremely high.

Given these dangers and the saturation levels of media coverage, not to say sensationalism, that kidnappings attract, it is understandable that people from certain professions, or those who happen to occupy high profile roles, have become concerned. Knowing that a general level of risk of kidnap exists is one thing, but assessing the real level of threat to an individual or to a group representing a company, is another.

Reality of risk
Security consultants have a role in providing pragmatic, contemporaneous and bespoke advice to clients without creating unnecessary anxiety. The underpinning philosophy must always be that the protective measures must be less intimidating than the threat. ‘Do not go out, have guards around you at all times and avoid public places after dark’ is not a strategy for risk reduction; it is an unrealistic recipe for creating a recluse.

Risk assessment is almost a cliché in the world of security, but nevertheless remains the fundamental basis on which any protective risk reduction plan should be constructed. Effective risk assessment requires a continuing survey of the subjects, set against the geographical, social and political environments in which they are required to live and work.

Protective measures which are not founded on a thorough and continuing assessment of the risk profile of an individual, group or organisation are at best likely to be a waste of money and at worst may actually heighten the real risk.

Assessing the corporate client
Ideally, a consultant should spend time with the client, preferably in a neutral environment away from the pressures of the workplace and in a situation where the client feels at ease. No other representatives from the company, parent organisation or family should be present. This kind of quasi-confessional discretion is invaluable in establishing a frank dialogue, and can result in disclosure of vulnerabilities which might otherwise be hidden.

Individuals should be asked to describe their lifestyle inside and outside their organisation. Professional, domestic and social lives should be subject to careful analysis. A good consultant will strip away the layers and search for vulnerabilities. This process is thorough and detailed and unique to every individual, but some basic steps are common in all assessments.

An individual’s role within an organisation often generates most risk. Modern business operates on a global scale, and business travel is a part of modern commercial life. The consultant should note any lifestyle patterns which may highlight vulnerabilities, or, when they are broken, may act as indicators of potential problems. Questions will include:

  • Where do you travel?
  • Do you visit the same places?
  • Are you in a high-risk country/location?
  • Where are your offices located? Sometimes there are micro-climates of risk in otherwise safe areas.
  • Is the same airline or taxi company always used?
  • Are there fixed patterns to trips?
  • Do you always use the same hotels, agents and drivers? Are they booked in advance?

    Routines provide kidnappers with opportunities.

    Although an executive may seem to be the original ‘anonymous suit’, leading a quiet and unprovocative commercial life, once away from the office, he may perhaps attend contentious sporting or social events, or be involved with political groups that attract radical opposition. Even charitable contributions to religious causes have been used to identify potential targets. There are many other activities that can elevate the risk profile.

    Once a full risk analysis has been completed, consultants should discuss with clients how far they want to go in reducing their profile, and determine what protective measures might be put in place. Often individuals themselves can modify their behaviour in ways that that will significantly reduce risk. This collaborative approach is essential in ensuring the client believes in, and takes ownership of, any protection scheme.

    An effective consultancy will provide a risk reduction scheme that is commensurate to the assessed risk. The advice seldom needs to be dramatically life-changing, but it should make the client feel, and be, more secure.

    For clients assessed to be at high risk, prevention measures need to be tailored to fit the lifestyle and to be as discrete as possible. Apart from the latest technology-driven defensive measures that can be considered, detailed forensic profiles of those at high risk should be constructed. For high risk subjects, DNA profiles should be obtained.

    But the role of consultants should not end there. Advice on surviving any attempt at hostage taking should be provided. It should encompass the initial danger of the seizure, through to the techniques for surviving protracted detention and dealing with release.

    Although the primary focus for briefings should be on the target individual, contingency planning in support of the family and any organisation involved should also be available.

    An essential function of a consultant in any major crime investigation is acting as an adviser to the victims on the conduct of any police operation. Often the perfectly legitimate and positive actions of police, particularly foreign forces, may seem difficult to understand from the family’s perspective. A consultant can set these actions in context and give objective advice on their appropriateness and the risks involved. In the reverse direction, the consultant can ensure that investigators understand the concerns of the family or company involved. They can also sometimes offer alternative strategies to inexperienced investigators.

    And so to end where we began, with the media’s involvement in hostage and extortion cases. There is little doubt that kidnapping is a headline grabbing crime, and hopefully its relative rarity will ensure this remains the case. But when the worst happens, controlling the flow of information to the media is vital. Attempting to exclude them is the worst strategy of all. As an experienced journalist once remarked, “Some people say the media are like sharks. If that’s true isn’t it better to give the sharks something you want them to eat rather than let them feed themselves?”

    This is a cynical and not an entirely fair comment. In many kidnaps the role of the media has been crucial to the successful resolution of an enquiry and the safe release of hostages. Often organisations will have their own media and public relations departments, but few such departments will have experience of dealing with aggressive investigative reporters. Specialist consultants with in-depth experience of this area of the media can advise and act on a family’s or an organisation’s behalf, ensuring that the well-being of the hostage and the successful outcome of the recovery operation are protected at all times.

    Finally, it is worth remembering that there are more successfully negotiated kidnappings than ones that end in tragedy, for most have been criminally motivated. Since the Provisional IRA abandoned kidnap as a tactic over two decades ago, few major terrorist groups have used kidnap as a weapon of first choice to achieve political ends in the UK. That is not to say that it has not been used elsewhere. It has, often with tragic results.

    Fortunately, few individuals or organisations ever experience the trauma of a kidnap. The few who do will never forget the experience. Survival is never guaranteed, but assessment, planning and preparation can shift the odds and help to save lives.

    Roy Ramm is a non-executive director of Maxima Group plc,

    Royal & SunAlliance’s Professional and Financial Risk (ProFin) department’s website says that executives travelling or working overseas are increasingly at risk from kidnap or hijack by local mafia and criminal gangs. “In many countries the kidnapping of Westerners has become a business in its own right and the demands made can be huge. Even in the UK and Ireland, there have been a number of reported kidnaps of employees or their families, often to facilitate a robbery.”

  • In the period 1991 to 1999, worldwide reported kidnappings rose by 70% to 1,789.
  • The great majority of kidnappings go unreported.
  • In Europe, the unofficial average pay out per kidnapping is estimated to be $650,000, although multi-million ransoms have been paid.
  • About 10% of kidnap victims are killed.
  • Where professional negotiators are employed the chances of survival are increased very significantly.
  • A kidnapping has financial consequences beyond what might be expected, for example consultants’ fees, and medical, travel, legal and accommodation expenses.

    Risk prevention measures suggested by ProFin

  • Exchange passports that show travel to controversial countries for new, clean passports
  • Do not link yourself to your company if you work in a sensitive area. Avoid luggage tags, items with company logos, etc
  • Check the country you are visiting for current information and risk rating
  • Use non-stop flights provided by established airlines, between major airports
  • Book aircraft and hotel reservations in your own name without the corporate tag
  • When travelling, dress casually. Look like a tourist
  • Be met at the airport by colleagues or have the hotel arrange a taxi. Ask for proof of identity
  • Do not show hotel details on luggage
  • Never use unlicensed taxi touts. Use hotel taxis rather than street taxis. Lock all car doors
  • Wear a cheap watch and no jewellery
  • In bars and restaurants watch your drink being poured. If your drink is left unattended, buy a fresh one
  • If you have kidnap and ransom insurance keep quiet about it. Confidentiality is vital.