Human Capital

Three memoirs by victims of the booming kidnapping industry

Years ago when I was a volunteer for Canadian University Service Overseas in Africa, you could hitchhike the Great North Road from Zambia to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania without much concern for safety. This was a time before the proliferation of guns throughout Africa, before “failed states” and the rise of feudal warlords. At that time there was still a post-colonial deferential attitude toward white people. No one had heard of a kidnapping for ransom. Since then kidnapping for ransom has become a booming industry in many parts of the developing world.

According to the U.S. State Department, in the five years between 2006 and 2010, 42,246 people were kidnapped “as a result of terrorism” worldwide. That is an average of 8,449 per year. The numbers are probably higher since they do not account for kidnappings that are not reported. People are kidnapped by terrorist organizations that demand money, publicity, the release of prisoners or withdrawal of troops. Victims can also be kidnapped by sophisticated criminal gangs—sometimes drug cartels—or by petty criminals after quick cash. Victims can be traded or sold between organizations.

Kidnap victims have tended to be highly paid businessmen, political figures, diplomats and journalists. They are, increasingly, ordinary aid workers, tourists and backpackers. They can be held for years, for weeks or for a few days. Some have been murdered in gruesome beheadings or with execution-style bullets to the head. Some have been tortured and others have been released unharmed—at least physically. All have endured horrendous ordeals calling for unimaginable courage and resilience. When you hear of such stories in the media, you cannot help wondering how you would fare under such an ordeal, what strategies you would use to keep your hopes of rescue alive and what you would think about financial or prisoner negotiations for your release.

Three Canadians—a diplomat, a journalist and a religious and political activist—have experienced kidnappings in recent years, in the Maghrib, in Afghanistan and in Iraq respectively. They were all finally released and free to tell their stories. Reading their books provides a fulsome response to some questions and no answers at all to others.

Robert Fowler’s A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda shows a cover photo of Fowler and his colleague Louis Guay, looking haggard and tormented sitting on the ground with four shrouded gunmen standing behind them. This is the “proof of life” picture used to make demands in exchange for release. Fowler’s ordeal began in December 2008 when he and Guay, along with their driver, were kidnapped by three men in a pickup truck who forced their Land Cruiser to stop on the road to Niamey in Niger. They soon learned that they were being held by the notorious AQIM, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The State Department report offers this assessment of AQIM: “No group has made a bigger name for itself in the kidnapping for ransom business than al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which relies on ransom payments to sustain and develop itself in the harsh Saharan environment.”

Fowler and Guay were in the hands of ruthless professionals. They spent the next four months being hauled around to various Saharan desert camps in northern Mali near the Algerian border. They slept on the ground in the freezing desert nights and sought shelter under the sparse thorn trees in the scorching heat of the day. They ate what their captors ate. Fowler lost 40 pounds. They lived in constant fear for their lives either from beheading or from snake or scorpion bites or from a car accident as their captors furiously drove the trucks directly across the hard-packed desert sand. The description of the precarious angle of a truck that has ploughed its way to the top of a sand dune and is perched to fall over the cliff is almost as frightening as the prospect of a beheading.

Fowler derived strength from the fact that he was not alone. In it together, he and Guay devised psychological survival strategies. One rule, called “absolute avoidance of rabbit holes,” was “the most important and had to be strictly enforced.” It worked like this: “As soon as one of us started into some spiral of desperate worry, the other was to use every wile or insult to pull him back out … one of us would begin to slip into such a hole and resist very aggressively the other’s rescue attempts. I always knew … that Louis was there when I was down and my feelings of responsibility for him meant that I would not let myself, or him, wander too far or for too long underground.”

A Season in Hell is an engaging, clearly written story: subtle, informative, at times very moving, but never maudlin.

Mellissa Fung faced her ordeal alone. In October 2008 the CBC television journalist was kidnapped, while visiting a refugee camp in Afghanistan, by men claiming to be Taliban. She was held for 28 days in a filthy hole in the ground just big enough for her—and the guard who was always there—to lie down in. She had been stabbed during her capture and had bleeding wounds on her shoulder and hand, causing her pain much of the time. At one point she was sexually assaulted. The hole had a bucket for a toilet and there was one light bulb plugged into a car battery. She lived mostly on cookies, juice and cigarettes, and she wrote a journal that was later confiscated by her kidnappers. Her captors made it clear from the beginning that they wanted money for her; they promised they would not kill her and that they would not “hurt” her and she seems to have believed them. Fung describes herself as a practising Catholic. She was carrying a rosary and used it for hours on end to pray and to calm herself. She seldom acknowledged fear and was determined not to show any to the kidnappers. She tried, without much success, to gain information from them about where they were holding her and how negotiations for her release were proceeding. The kidnappers continually assured her that she would be freed “soon,” that relatives in Pakistan would fix things. While Fung’s story is suspenseful, Under An Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity lacks the openness, depth and literary strength of Fowler’s work and, strangely, seems not to do justice to her ordeal. It is as if she did not really want to talk about the experience.

The third book by a kidnapped Canadian is James Loney’s Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War. It is his story of being held, often in chains, in a house in Baghdad along with three other members of a Christian Peacemaker Team that went to Iraq in 2005 to “bear witness” against the war and investigate human rights abuses. He was held by a group called the Swords of Righteousness Brigade, who demanded release of Iraqi prisoners in exchange for their hostages. Loney was rescued in March 2006 by a multinational team of British, American and Canadian soldiers who freed him and two others without firing a shot. The American in the group, Tom Fox, had been murdered earlier, his tortured body found in Baghdad. Loney maintains he understood the risk he was taking by going to Iraq and believes the work they were doing was worth it. And yet, when he was rescued, he recognized the contradictory aspect of his political choice. “I’m ecstatic. It’s over. We’re safe, we’re free … They came, they risked their lives for us. Simply because it’s their job. At the same time I am sad, troubled, aching. That it had to come to this, a special forces commando rescue. How strange and paradoxical: we have been delivered by the very thing we were kidnapped for setting our lives against.”

Loney’s book describes his ordeal in excruciating detail. He kept a journal and diligently noted everything that happened or, mostly, did not happen each day and the book suffers from too much introspective detail. But it does provide insight into the minds of well-motivated Christians who are not content to protest war in less risky ways like pacifism and conscientious objection.

Kidnapping for ransom is a burgeoning global industry. Terrorist organizations and criminal gangs have developed a revenue generation strategy to finance their activities. In an essay published in the Emory Law Journal in 2007 author Meadow Clendenin looks back on the phenomenon: “Throughout the history of terrorism, guerilla and terrorist groups have used kidnap for ransom as a means for funding their operations. In recent history, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and Al Qaeda-linked terrorist cells have all adopted the tactic.” Although it is no longer the threat that it once was, the FARC in Columbia may hold the historic record of successful kidnapping for ransom. According to Clendenin, “between 1995 and 2000, FARC received approximately $632 million in ransom for freeing kidnapped foreigners, most of whom were employees of multinational corporations.”

Most countries have a policy of not paying ransoms to kidnappers in the belief that doing so leads to more kidnapping. But with some exceptions, governments have not made it illegal for private individuals or companies to pay ransoms. The result of this quixotic approach is a global insurance industry built on kidnapping and ransom—the K&R business.

Over 20 years ago former Sunday Times defence correspondent James Adams wrote a book called The Financing of Terror in which he describes the phenomenon: “Responding to an obvious market need and an inability of the legitimate law enforcement agencies to counter the kidnap threat effectively, business has stepped in with a series of packages which offer both insurance and training.” Later he notes that “in an unintentional conspiracy, the terrorist, the victim and the insurance companies have found a level at which they are prepared to work. The kidnappers get their cash, the victims have insurance and the insurance companies get their premiums.”

Clendenin argues that insurers are undermining U.S. counterterrorism policy. “The United States’ policy for dealing with terrorist demands is clear: absolutely no concessions. No ransoms shall be paid to hostage takers. The policy is stern, but the government’s bark is worse than its bite because only the government is required to comply, not private entities.”

The K&R business has expanded since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the invasion of Iraq. Some of the world’s biggest, oldest and most prestigious insurance companies have spun off subsidiary security firms. Companies such as Control Risks, Hiscox and Willis Group Holdings offer security services in addition to ransom reimbursement. Willis Group Holdings, with more than 300 offices in some 80 countries and a global team of 14,500 associates, explains in a 2004 media release that insurers usually partner with “incident response companies”—these provide experts whose specialty is handling interaction with kidnappers. K&R insurance policies can include business interruption coverage, coverage for lawsuits brought against the company by family members of kidnap victims, victim’s medical costs and help with preventive measures such as training in techniques to prevent kidnapping.

Unfortunately we learn little about the ransom side of the story from these three books. Both Fowler and Fung seem to be holding back part of what they know about what happened. Both are troubled by the ethical and public policy issues raised by the paying of ransoms.

Fung tells how her captors expressed frustration that they did not in the end receive the ransom money they had been waiting for. It seems that the western forces in Afghanistan were able to gain enough intelligence information about who was holding her to enable them to detain the mother of one of the ring leaders. Fung suggests a scenario in which she was released in exchange for the mother. Is that what happened? The reader is left wondering if ransom money changed hands as well. She does report that CBC had “a team from our security firm, AKE” in Kabul and “the CBC had brought in a second security company as well—the British-based Control Risks, who specialize in kidnapping and ransom.”

Both the Fung and Fowler stories raise questions about the role of the media in reporting on kidnapping cases. Fung’s employer, the CBC, took the advice of experts and imposed a news blackout on her kidnapping, successfully requesting other media organizations do the same. The CBC believed that publicity could endanger her life. Fowler’s story was reported in Canada and in Europe. He is critical of the way the media handled his case, suggesting that they “take care of their own” but are less careful about reporting on other, non-journalist kidnap victims, making matters worse for the captives and their families. His tech-savvy captors had access to the internet and cell phones and after reading a news story reporting that Fowler and Guay were returning from visiting a gold mine they began pressuring the diplomats, demanding to know where the gold was. Needless to say, this only increased the stress and fear that both diplomats were living with.

The question of whether a ransom was paid in the case of Fowler and Guay is not answered conclusively but evidence suggests it was. The Associated Press reports that AQIM have kidnapped and ransomed more than 50 Europeans and Canadians since 2003 and experts estimate this branch of al Qaeda has been able to raise some $130 million from ransoms. Shortly after the release of Fowler and Guay, AQIM issued a statement claiming that “with praise to Allah alone, four prisoners among our mujahedeen were released in exchange for the release of the hostages.”

An intriguing story unfolded a few weeks after the release of the diplomats. The Globe and Mail reported a WikiLeaks cable from the United States suggesting that money from a ransom payment was used to rig a local election in Mali. The village of Tarkint “suddenly found itself awash in ‘new-found affluence following the liberation of the Canadian hostages’.” And one of the people directly involved in the negotiation for the release of Fowler and Guay seems to have benefitted electorally from the money. This information is contained in a May 2009 U.S. State Department cable made available by WikiLeaks. The same Globe story also reported that “the U.S. ambassador to Mali named and shamed Canada for being part of a secret ransom-for-hostages deal. The Conservative government has denied paying a ransom.”

Toward the end of his book Fowler reviews the debate about whether governments should pay ransoms to free their citizens. His reflection is informed, thoughtful, humane and makes for a suitable last word.

He writes:

There tends also to be a significant difference between what governments do and what they say, and this seems to me quite reasonable. There are good arguments on most sides and a wealth of unhappy experiences to buttress just about every position … Many countries adopt what are more or less admittedly pragmatic approaches while others proclaim immutable doctrine, but I know for certain that everybody has blinked at one time or another.

I am also well aware that there is no way I can be objective about such issues. I’ve tried, but it’s just not possible.