Tanner Harris' typical Tuesday morning routine was violently interrupted July 7, when two armed men invaded his home, blindfolding and handcuffing him and his wife, Abbey. But the incident was not a simple home invasion robbery. Though the family's home was in a nice neighborhood, the assailants were not interested in the home's occupants or their possessions. Instead, they wanted to use Tanner Harris to gain access to something else: his place of work. Harris, a first vice president at SmartBank, had become the victim of a tiger kidnapping, and his captors were going to use him to gain access to the bank's vault and cash.
The gunmen loaded Harris, Abbey and their five-month-old baby into the family's car and drove to the bank. Harris was ordered to obtain a specified amount of money while the gunmen waited in the car with his family. After he got the money and brought it back, the gunmen sped off with Abbey and the baby. They later abandoned them and the family vehicle unharmed on a remote dirt road near the interstate, which provided the criminals with a high-speed escape route.
The tiger kidnapping of the Harris family was the second in the Knoxville area in recent months. On April 28 (also a Tuesday), Mark Ziegler, the CEO of the Y-12 Federal Credit Union, and his family were also taken captive in their home by armed assailants. In the Ziegler case, a woman accompanied the two men involved in the crime, and the Ziegler family was detained in their home while Mark Ziegler was sent to retrieve the cash, rather than being taken to the bank.
Tiger kidnapping, or taking a family hostage and forcing a member to retrieve money or other goods of value from his place of business, derives its unique name from the extensive surveillance it requires, essentially stalking the victims like tigers stalk their prey. The tactic has long been used in places such as Ireland, where, in addition to robbery, the Provisional Irish Republican Army used tiger kidnappings to force men to deliver bombs to targets. Tiger kidnappings have also made it to the big screen in movies such as the 2001 "Bandits," starring Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton.
Though tiger kidnappings often catch their victims by surprise, like other crimes, they do not spontaneously emerge from a vacuum. They follow a discernable planning process that can be detected. There are also security measures banks and other businesses can implement to help guard against them.
Preparing for the Hunt
The planning process for a tiger kidnapping follows the same general preparatory cycle as that of any other crime. However, it requires far more effort than a straight bank robbery, a home invasion robbery, or even a conventional kidnapping for ransom, because it involves elements of all three. First, the criminals need to conduct surveillance on the bank to determine its procedures and to identify their target, who is often the first person into the office each morning. They then need to conduct surveillance on the targeted employee or employees to determine his home address behavioral patterns. Next, to plan for the home invasion and kidnapping portion of the crime, the criminals have to surveil the employee's residence, including the neighborhood, and the security measures employed there.
The large amount of surveillance also means that the criminals planning it are vulnerable to detection for a longer period than are the criminals planning most crimes. Although the April 28 and July 7 tiger kidnappings in Knoxville were separated by several weeks, it is likely that the criminal group responsible for them (if it is indeed the same group) was not dormant for long, but that planning its next job simply took that long.
During those phases of the criminal planning cycle that require surveillance, criminals are vulnerable to detection. This vulnerability is magnified by the fact that most criminals are simply not very good at conducting surveillance, something I know first hand. Countersurveillance teams I've worked on have identified many criminals who weren't even targeting our protectees but whose surveillance tradecraft was so bad that we had little problem spotting them and alerting the local police.
The ability to display the appropriate demeanor for a situation is essential to mastering the art of surveillance. But this is far more difficult than it sounds; displaying good demeanor is not intuitive. In fact, maintaining good demeanor while conducting surveillance frequently runs counter to human nature. Because of this, intelligence, law enforcement and security professionals assigned to work surveillance operations receive extensive training that includes many hours of heavily critiqued practical exercises, often followed by field training with a team of experienced surveillance professionals. This training teaches and reinforces good demeanor. Criminals simply do not receive this type of training, and it shows: They tend to lurk and look out of place.
Criminals are able to get by with such a poor level of surveillance tradecraft — especially bad demeanor — because most victims of tiger kidnappings and other crimes simply are not looking for potential threats. During my career, I have spent thousands of hours on the street conducting surveillance on criminals and countersurveillance to protect people and facilities. This means that I have spent significant amounts of time watching people's behavior in residential neighborhoods, commercial districts and diplomatic enclaves. During this time, I was honestly surprised that few people ever paid any attention to me as I was watching them. The truth is most people simply don't have much consciousness of what is happening around them.
This lack of awareness is often caused by, or in some cases compounded by, the wrong mindset. I have interviewed a large number of crime victims who noticed criminals before they were attacked, but for some reason they chose not to take action that could have kept them safe. They either ignored what they were seeing because they did not trust their senses, they were too busy to make the effort to check out the anomaly or to avoid a potential problem, or they mistakenly thought they couldn't or wouldn't be targeted.
Adopting a sound security mindset, one that recognizes that threats do exist and that accepts responsibility for one's own security, and then maintaining an appropriate level of situational awareness are the most important steps that people can take to avoid becoming victims of a tiger kidnapping.
In addition to becoming an alert target who is hard to surveil, at-risk employees can also employ good residential security measures and procedures to help persuade criminals to select another, more vulnerable target.
In addition to urging employees to practice good situational awareness, there are also some procedural measures that banks and businesses can implement to help reduce the threat of falling victim to a tiger kidnapping, or to mitigate the harm should one occur.
First, businesses should attempt to minimize the amount of cash or valuables that can be accessed to the smallest amount required to operate. They should also consider compartmentalizing valuables into smaller quantities and limiting an individual's access to different compartments. Instituting such a policy and making it known will help shield a business against tiger kidnappers who will divert to more lucrative targets.
Speaking of making things known, sensitive information regarding business procedures and operations should be strictly limited to those who must be informed to do their jobs effectively. This will help make it more difficult for tiger kidnappers to get the intelligence they need on personnel and procedures.
Businesses can also establish a system whereby two people must work in tandem in order to open sensitive areas such as bank vaults and cash boxes. This prevents any single individual from being able to turn the valuables over to the kidnappers and would require tiger kidnappers to either simultaneously carry out two separate operations, or choose another target. Off-site control for opening critical locks or access to large quantities of cash or other valuables can also be helpful.
Companies can also plan for tiger kidnappings by establishing special tiger kidnapping alarms and alarm procedures intended to protect the employee and his family. Such a program should contain verbal and non-verbal duress codes. Obviously, such a program would require thoughtful planning and training for employees and would vary by business.
Companies are ultimately the targets of tiger kidnappers, and most tiger kidnappings begin with the criminals conducting surveillance at the company's location. Companies can therefore employ surveillance detection or countersurveillance teams at their office, focusing on those times, such as opening and closing, when criminals would be working to determine operational procedures and working to identify which specific employee to target.
Banks and bank employees in the Knoxville area may now increase their situational awareness in the wake of the two tiger kidnappings in their city, but it is important to recognize that tiger kidnappers just don't target bank employees. They can also target people with access to jewelry stores, gun shops, warehouses, armored car companies and other places that contain items of value. Furthermore, criminals tend to copy tactics that are successful, and this could lead to other criminal gangs copying the tactics used by the tiger kidnapper in Knoxville. If locations in Knoxville become too difficult to target, the group behind these robberies could also change their area of operation and move to Gatlinburg, Ashville, Chattanooga or any other city, so the need for awareness of tiger kidnappings goes beyond Knoxville, and beyond banks.