After attending a non-governmental organization security conference last week and chatting with some friends there, I decided to focus this Security Weekly on the continued and widespread kidnapping threat jihadist groups pose to NGO workers and other foreigners.
Since I made that decision, a number of events have occurred concerning foreign hostages and jihadists:
- Sept. 20: The Islamic State released the 49 Turkish diplomats it abducted from the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Iraq in a prisoner exchange for Islamic State militants and family members.
- Sept. 22: French citizen Herve Gourdel was kidnapped in the Kabylie region of Algeria by Jund al-Khilifah, a splinter group of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that has broken from the al Qaeda orbit and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. On Sept. 24, the group published a video on the Internet featuring Gourdel's beheading.
- Sept. 22: The Islamic State released a second message by British hostage John Cantlie that criticized U.S. policy toward the Islamic State.
- Sept. 23: The German government confirmed the deaths of two Christian aid workers and their young son who were abducted in northern Yemen in June 2009.
- Sept 23: German-American journalist Michael Scott Moore, who was kidnapped in Somalia while working on a story on piracy, was released — reportedly after a ransom payment.
- Sept. 23: Philippine jihadist group Abu Sayyaf released a statement warning that two German hostages would be executed in 15 days unless Germany paid a ransom of 250 million Philippine Pesos ($5.6 million) and stopped supporting U.S. operations against the Islamic State and other jihadists in the Levant.
While the Gourdel abduction in Algeria and the Abu Sayyaf statement may have stolen my thunder a bit regarding this topic, all of these events nonetheless serve as timely and powerful reminders that, when in dangerous areas, the risk of abduction by jihadist groups persists. Foreigners, whether they be NGO workers, journalists, businessmen or tourists, have become valuable commodities for jihadist groups, and they must exercise great caution when in areas within the operational range of such groups.
Foreigners as Commodities
For over two decades now, jihadist groups have kidnapped Westerners for use in hostage swaps or for ransom. Kashmiri jihadists kidnapped a group of Swedish engineers in March 1991, representing the first of many kidnappings in Kashmir. Since then, foreigners have been kidnapped by jihadist groups in Algeria, Niger, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia and the Philippines.
As Stratfor has noted elsewhere, jihadist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have netted tens of millions of dollars through kidnapping-for-ransom operations.
Though the Islamic State recently beheaded two American hostages and one British hostage in Syria to make a political point and generate a great deal of publicity, such spectacular hostage killings are not new. Kashmiri jihadists beheaded a Norwegian hostage they captured in 1995 to pressure the Indian government to make a deal for their remaining hostages, and al Qaeda beheaded American journalist Daniel Pearl in January 2002 after kidnapping him in Karachi, Pakistan. Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia beheaded Paul Johnson in 2004, and al Qaeda in Iraq (the group now calling itself the Islamic State) beheaded Nick Berg in 2004.
Perhaps the best example of hostages being used as commodities can be seen in a letter from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wahayshi to Abdelmalek Droukdel (aka Abu Musab Abdel al-Wadoud), the leader or "emir" of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In the letter, al-Wahayshi discussed how his group had suffered terrible losses after a counteroffensive defeated its attempt to seize control of a large section of southern Yemen in 2011 and 2012. According to al-Wahayshi, "The control of these areas during one year cost us 500 martyrs, 700 wounded, 10 cases of hand or leg amputation and nearly $20 million." Al-Wahayshi continued, "most of the battle costs, if not all, were paid from the spoils. Almost half the spoils came from hostages. Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure."
Foreign hostages are not only a treasure for jihadist groups. In Yemen, Sahel and Syria, tribal militants and bandits have been known to sell hostages to jihadist groups, meaning grabbing a foreigner is also an easy, lucrative business for them. For these smaller groups, the gratification is more immediate because they do not have to go through the trouble of a protracted negotiation but instead receive cash directly from the militants. Recently, a friend of mine returned from a trip to Yemen, where he had an uneasy trip after a man he was staying with told him al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was offering a bounty on foreigners, and he could make a lot of money by selling my friend.
Purchasing hostages from bandits and other criminals extends the reach of jihadist groups to locations beyond their normal areas of operations. This has important implications for foreigners who may consider themselves outside the traditional range of jihadist groups.
Also, note that I am intentionally using the phrase foreigners and foreign hostages here. This is because, while Westerners get the most publicity in Western press, jihadists are also kidnapping Asians and other foreigners.
Scope of the Threat
The Islamic State and the al Qaeda franchises are hurting for cash. While some media reports have labeled the Islamic State the richest militant group ever, such reports fail to understand the extent of its obligations. The Islamic State makes a lot of money, but it also spends a lot of money.
All jihadist groups have been pressed hard on the battlefield. They need cash to pay for weapons, salaries for fighters, vehicles, medical care, gasoline, food, payments to tribal sheikhs, etc. In addition, the United States and its allies have expended a great deal of effort to curtail the funding of these militant groups in the years since 9/11. These efforts have degraded their ability to receive money via Islamic charities and wealthy donors, though those flows have by no means been completely and permanently stopped. Still, we know from communications from al Qaeda core leaders and from many of the franchise leaders such as al-Wahayshi that obstacles to receiving donated cash have caused jihadist groups to increasingly rely on funds raised from ventures such as kidnapping for ransom.
At the same time, as hostages are becoming more important sources of funding, the Islamic State has beheaded some of its hostages. Likewise, groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have ransomed some hostages and, as noted above, they also had a group of German hostages die in captivity. This means these groups — among others — will be seeking to replenish their stock of hostages.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula perhaps has the most limited access to potential foreign hostages, as travel to Yemen is very unpopular now because of the many dangers associated with it and because the group is rather isolated due to its geographic location. Nevertheless, any remaining expatriates in Yemen and near the Yemeni border in southern Saudi Arabia should be careful.
In the Horn of Africa, al Shabaab poses a risk to the few foreigners visiting Somalia. It also has the capability to reach into Kenya, eastern Ethiopia and perhaps even Djibouti.
Earlier this month, Jabhat al-Nusra released a group of UN peacekeepers from Fiji that had been abducted in the Golan Heights in late August, but it should not be expected to do the same with other potential ransom victims. The group is also believed to still be holding at least one foreign aid worker in captivity. With foreign aid workers and journalists becoming reluctant to travel to Syria because of the threat of abduction by the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra — or by militant groups who sell abducted foreigners to one of those groups — there is a possibility that the groups or their proxies could abduct foreigners from locations along the Syrian border in southern Turkey.
In the Sahel, groups including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Mourabitoun and now Jund al-Khilifah, pose a very wide kidnapping threat. These groups are highly mobile and are linked to groups of Tuareg and other bandits in the region, as well as Ansar al Sharia militants in Tunisia and Libya.
In Afghanistan, the various Taliban groups have shown the ability to operate throughout most of the country, as has the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in that country.
Other highly mobile groups are Abu Sayyaf and other Filipino jihadist groups operating in Mindanao and across the Sulu Archipelago region. They are experienced mariners and can operate in parts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The kidnapping threat is not new, and it should not be hyped. But now is a good time for NGO workers, journalists, tourists, business travelers and other foreigners in areas where these groups operate to assess their situation, check their security posture and practice an appropriate level of situational awareness so that they can keep from becoming the next kidnapping victim. As we've previously noted, kidnapping is a complex crime and is almost always the result of a complex and carefully orchestrated criminal process. Because of this, there are almost always some indications and warnings that the process is underway prior to the abduction, meaning that many, if not most, kidnappings are avoidable.