Kidnapping Part 1: Understanding Kidnapping Threats
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
I recently had the privilege to participate in an episode of the How to Get on a Watchlist podcast that discussed the kidnappings of business executives.
After I shared the episode with a friend, she said she was not aware there were so many different types of kidnapping and suggested that I write something discussing them.
I agree that it is a good topic to examine, but since it is such a broad topic, I will need to write a series rather than a single piece to cover the different types of kidnapping in detail.
In this first installment, I discuss the different types of kidnappings in general. Subsequent pieces will delve into a specific type of kidnapping and focus on ways to prevent or mitigate them.
Kidnapping is a global phenomenon and one that has many motivations.
In the United States and much of the developed world, the most common motivation for kidnapping stems from familial custody disputes.
The Center for Missing and Exploited Children (CMEC) reports that only 1 percent of the abductions reported to the center involve a non-family member.
Beyond custody disputes, sexual exploitation is another significant motive in the kidnapping of children.
Of the 366 non-familial abductions reported to the CMEC from 2016-2020, the largest number of them, 86, were sexually motivated.
Of those 86 cases, 71 involved victims who were 11 to 18- years old, and 59 of those victims knew their abductors.
Carjackings—the second most common kidnapping—involved 79 children, while 67 of the abductions involved an intimate partner of one of the child’s parents.
Sexual exploitation is also a significant motive in the kidnapping of adults.
Some of these cases result in the victim being trafficked or kept as a hostage, while the cases involving predatory stalkers often end with the victim being sexually assaulted and, in many cases, murdered.
Kidnappings conducted for motives such as custody disputes, sexual exploitation, and short-term kidnapping for robbery are far more common than financially motivated ones such as kidnapping for ransom.
While crime statistics for kidnapping in the U.S. are hard to obtain, it is clear that kidnapping for ransom cases, despite their Hollywood appeal, are relatively rare.
Kidnapping for Ransom
A kidnapping for ransom requires extended and repeated contact with the victim’s family to negotiate a ransom amount, as well as the logistic and risky exchange of the ransom.
This repeated contact places kidnappers at great risk in places like the United States, where police possess sophisticated investigative and technical capabilities.
Kidnapping for ransom is thus far riskier than other types of high-value crimes and results in it being a relatively rare crime in the United States due to the advanced capabilities of law enforcement.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 95 and 98 percent of the perpetrators of kidnapping for ransom cases reported to police in the U.S. are caught and convicted.
Indeed, most kidnappings for ransom in the United States occur within immigrant communities, especially those communities where there is a fear or mistrust of the police.
Undocumented immigrants are frequently targeted because they are seen as unlikely to go to the police for help.
Outside the United States
The kidnapping environment in places like Mexico, Venezuela, or Nigeria is very different from that in the United States and Europe.
In those countries, kidnapping is rampant and has developed into a significant cottage industry with a well-established support infrastructure.
This infrastructure includes groups that possess robust intelligence networks for gathering financial and targeting data on potential victims.
Often these gangs will even have contacts inside banking institutions that can provide timely and accurate data on the victim’s finances.
These gangs also have well-established networks of safe houses with dedicated guards and cooks for safeguarding their captives during the negotiation period.
In these countries, police corruption and incompetence ensure that kidnappers are rarely caught or successfully prosecuted.
In many cases, the authorities are even complicit in kidnappings, causing families to hesitate to report kidnappings.
Kidnappers Run the Gamut
It is also important to recognize that a wide spectrum of different groups conduct kidnappings.
At the high end are the sophisticated groups with government contacts and designated safe houses that are seeking million-dollar payouts.
These groups often are comprised of professional operatives who specialize in one aspect of the kidnapping, with separate intelligence and surveillance teams, abduction teams, safehouse guards, and negotiators.
At the low end are street gangs like 400 Mawozo in Haiti that operate more like ambush predators and kidnap targets of opportunity who happen to pass through territory they control rather than identifying and stalking a specific victim.
Such a group is far more haphazard and is often content with a ransom of a few thousand dollars—unless they accidentally score a high-value target like a group of foreign missionaries.
Other Types of Kidnappings
In addition to kidnappings for ransom, there are several other types of financially motivated kidnapping:
- Express kidnapping – a relatively short-duration kidnapping, as the name implies, in which the victim is held until the criminals drain the victim’s bank account via ATMs or receive a quick payout from a family member
- Tiger kidnapping – the target’s family is abducted to force them to comply with a demand, such as to open a bank vault or a safe at the target’s place of business.
- Virtual kidnapping – a caller fakes the kidnapping of a family member to cause the panicked victim to pay a quick ransom.
- Crypto kidnapping – on the rise in recent years, the victim is abducted and then threatened or tortured until they give their abductors the password to their cryptocurrency wallet.
Among non-financial and non-sexual kidnappings, there are also political kidnappings in which a victim is abducted in an attempt to force a government to make some concession, such as releasing a prisoner.
This used to be a tool used by terrorist groups such as the Italian Red Brigade, Hezbollah, or al Qaeda, but more recently, we have seen countries such as Iran and Russia also engage in political kidnappings.
This report is the first in a series addressing different types of kidnapping and their motivations. The second part, High-Value Kidnapping for Ransom, discusses how the required complex planning can be an advantage. The third part, Express Kidnapping, examines how this crime of opportunity is no less dangerous for the victim. The fourth part of the series, Virtual Kidnapping, considers who the real victim is. The fifth part, Tiger Kidnapping, explains how victims are victimized again. The sixth and final part of the series, Crypto Kidnapping, centers on kidnappers who identify targets with large amounts of cryptocurrency.
My partner on the podcast episode was the author, Philip Jett, who has written two excellent books detailing kidnappings.
- The first, Death of an Heir, examines the botched 1960 kidnapping attempt that resulted in the death of Adolph Coors III.
- Philip’s second book, Taking Mr. Exxon, details the 1992 kidnapping attempt that resulted in the death of Exxon president Sidney Reso.
If you are interested in the topic of kidnapping, I’d highly recommend Philip’s two very well-researched books and How to Get on a Watchlist Episode 5: How to Kidnap an Executive.