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Kidnapping for ransom and terrorism


Key facts

Kidnapping-for-ransom, or hostage-taking, is defined in the International Convention against the Taking of Hostages:

Any person who seizes or detains and threatens to kill, to injure or to continue to detain another person in order to compel a third party, namely, a State, an international intergovernmental organization, a natural or juridical person, or a group of persons, to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of hostages (article 1).

From 1970-2010, kidnapping incidents represented a small portion of all terrorist attacks (6.9%), however, through 2016 the percentage of kidnappings has jumped significantly to 15.8% of all terrorist attacks (Global Terrorism Database, 2018). In 2017, the total number of terrorist attacks (8,584 worldwide) decreased by 23 percent and the number of casualties due to terrorist attacks decreased by 27 percent, compared to 2016. The number of kidnapping victims and hostages recorded in this year were more than 8,900, which signifies a 43 percent decline from 2016 and a notable shift from previous years, which saw sharp increases in this figure. Globally, bombings and explosions accounted for 47 per cent of attacks in that year. Armed assault was the next most common form of attack in accounting for 22 per cent, followed by facility/infrastructure attacks (12 per cent), hostage taking (10 per cent) and assassinations (8 per cent).

Nasser Al-Wuhayshi, former leader of Yemen-based Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, called kidnapping "an easy spoil... a profitable trade and a precious treasure" (Rhode, 2014). Oumar Ould Hamaha, commander of the Mali-based Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), noted in a newspaper interview: "lots of Western countries are paying enormous sums to the jihadists. The source of our financing is the Western countries. They are paying for jihad" (Nossiter, 2012).

Between 2008 and 2014, Al-Qaida and its direct affiliates made at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings, $66 million of which was collected in 2013 (Callimachi, 2014). It is estimated that Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb received $75 million in ransom payments between 2010 and 2014 (UNSC (b), 2014). Abu Sayyaf Group has participated in kidnappings where around $1.5 million in ransoms were collected by 2014, with approximately half that amount collected in 2012 and 2013. Boko Haram has also been known to raise funds thought mass kidnapping of foreigners and civilians for ransom. According to reports, Boko Haram has a specialized kidnapping task force that sets out to abduct politicians, business people, foreigners, rulers and civil servants with the intention of later trading them back for large sums of money or for the return of other Boko Haram militants (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2017).

Case Study: Abu Sayyaf and the KfR/Crime-Terrorism Nexus

The terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf (ASG) has used kidnapping for ransom as a tactic to fund its activities in the Philippines. ASG's history of engaging in both criminal and terrorist activity makes it an interesting case study to examine the crime-terror linkages as it applies to kidnapping for ransom. According to McKenzie O'Brien's 2012 analysis of ASG, its evolution from terrorist to criminal organization is related to fluctuations in its leadership, membership, structure and relationships with criminal and terrorist organizations. This case study focuses on ASG's two identities as terrorists and kidnappers, and using O'Brien's analysis, draws conclusions about why a terrorist group may transition from its ideological objectives to take up the criminal enterprise's profit-making goals (O'Brien, 2012).

According to the Global Terrorism Database, the number of kidnapping attacks in the Philippines remained consistent over the past couple of years, but the number of victims increased by at least 70% between 2015 and 2016 (127 victims in 2015 to 218 in 2016); the number further increased in 2017, when the total recorded kidnapped/hostages in the country was 408 (of a total of 8,937 victims recorded worldwide). While not all kidnapping for ransom activities are undertaken by ASG in the Philippines, it is believed that the group of less than 500 members is responsible for raising over $35 million dollars from kidnapping activities between 1992 and 2008.

While ASG was originally founded to achieve political objectives, it increasingly developed a penchant for kidnapping for ransom. Kidnapping is at the centre of ASGs activities, and while throughout its history it has been labelled as terrorist group in the Philippines, it has notably heightened its criminal activity at the expense of its terrorist/political/ideological objectives on numerous occasions. ASG maintains relationships with other terrorist organizations such as the Philippine Islamist separatist group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Indonesian-based terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiya (JI).

For a period of time, ASG relied on Al Qaida-provided training and funding but was cut off in the 1990s due to mounting pressure from Philippine authorities. Once this funding source was removed, ASG began engaging in criminal activities to ensure its continued survival, including kidnapping for ransom which accounted for over 90% of its funding. ASG received much of its training in criminal activity from fellow terrorist groups and relied on the profits made from kidnapping to entice new members to join the group.

In the past, under the leadership of charismatic ideologically-driven leaders such as Abdurajak Janjalani, recruitment could be done on the basis of ideology; but now financial reward seems to be the most effective recruitment strategy. ASG tends to kidnap locals at a far greater rate than foreigners. However, higher ransom payments are usually made for foreign kidnap victims. This may be a motivating factor for those incidences in which ASG has attacked resorts frequented by foreign tourists as well as individuals working with non-governmental organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (2009). 

According to O'Brien, ASG fluctuates between years where it is driven by terrorist ideology and subsequently decreases kidnapping for ransom activities, and years where its terrorist objectives take a back seat to the profit-making venture of kidnapping. To examine how ASG traverses the crime-terror nexus, O'Brien provides four frames of analysis that contribute to ASG's identity along the crime-terror continuum: (i) leadership; (ii) structure of the group; (iii) membership of the group; (iv) and external linkages. This analysis as they apply to ASG reveals how the crime-terror nexus plays out through kidnapping for ransom undertaken by terrorist groups.

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