Four people, including three children, were kidnapped by criminals then freed by the authorities in Iraq last week. In recent months consular warnings have continued to remind foreign nationals of the risk of abduction still present in the country. With a rise in foreigners travelling to the country it may only be a matter of time before one is abducted. Every week an average of one to two Iraqis are seized and held for ransom. However, with security gradually improving in the country the risk may no longer be as relevant as it used to be. The last foreign national to be seized was a US citizen of Iraqi origin, abducted from Karradah district in central Baghdad in early 2010.
Kidnaps continue to occur across the country, from Mosul to Basrah. Earlier in the year a kidnapping cell was arrested in the normally quiet district of al-Faw in the far south, while Baghdad and urbanised parts of the central provinces remain affected by the stubbornly persistent risk. Most victims are held for only a few days, and while some are freed in police operations, some are also released after their families have paid a ransom. Current settlement figures stand at around US$50,000 per person.
The Next Target
With a growing number of foreign nationals travelling to the south of the country there are fears that this may be the scene of the next big abduction, although a credible risk to foreigners also exists in the capital as well. The energy sector may be a particularly attractive target, given the perception that affected companies will be able to pay for a ransom. There are also concerns that politically motivated groups may also wish to target the sector in order to make their demands felt in both the government and international community.
Tackling the Problem
Current abduction rates are much lower than during the years prior to 2008; then Iraqis and foreigners were abducted on a much more regular basis. Nonetheless, the lingering presence of kidnap groups continues to pose a potential risk for investors and business travellers arriving in the country. One hugely positive development in the fight against kidnap has been a strong rise in the professionalism of the Iraqi police forces. Once heavily involved in the kidnap trade the police have undergone significant training. Levels of corruption have fallen and police links to underground militia groups have weakened. Over the past two years a growing number of kidnap rings have been broken up while tens of captives, including several children, have been freed. The growing capabilities of the police forces are a major asset in the fight against kidnap.
For now, it remains unsafe to travel out into the Iraqi streets without a degree of protection. Adequate insurance should also be considered, with an inclusion of K&R (Kidnap and Ransom) cover. Companies sending employees to Iraq should also consider crisis management training. Travel planners, administrative personnel and health and safety officers should be prepared and well briefed on what to do in the event of an abduction. The likelihood of being kidnapped in Iraq is statistically very low, but companies and their employees still need to prepare themselves or they will present an opportunity to the criminal and militant groups still present in the country.
AKE has recently produced a worldwide kidnap and ransom report. If you would like to obtain a copy please contact the AKE intelligence department at [email protected] or call +44 (0) 207 816 5454.
John F Drake is a senior risk consultant with AKE Group, a British private security firm working in Iraq from before 2003. Further details on the company can be found at www.akegroup.com/iraq
You can also follow John on twitter at www.twitter.com/johnfdrake