The Victim, the Family, the Company: The Three Dimensions of Consequence During a Kidnapping

By Christopher Voss
Victim’s Life. To those thinking only about the primary dimension – the life of the victim – ransom as a solution seems a foregone conclusion. People with this perspective—often the family of the victim, but also often co-workers and employers who care deeply—don’t really care about the potential ramifications of paying ransom. They know they didn’t create the problem in the first place, but they do know they have to suffer the direct consequences of a horrific loss if one isn’t paid.
At the same time, ransom is distasteful. There’s a saying – “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.” The problem in a kidnapping is that the choice of whether or not to wrestle with this pig has already been taken away. It already has you in a headlock. Your choices are not if you should respond, but how.
When the only presented solution is extortion – and ransom is extortion – you have to ask yourself, “Am I committing a crime by availing myself of it? Will I make all subsequent matters for my organization, employees, and sister organizations worse?”
When considering the primary dimension, the life of the victim, know this: no organization should feel it needs to abandon an employee taken hostage, because it is being extorted and forced onto an adverse path, the path of ransom. There exist legitimate professionals who have learned to ethically and legally navigate these waters.
You should also know that your organization never needs to abandon a kidnapped employee because of the fear that responding or capitulating to demands will further endanger your extended professional family. Unfortunately, it’s a widely held and naïve belief that any payment of ransom puts a permanent “target” on the rest of the company’s employees.
The truth is that paying ransom doesn’t create the perception among organized kidnappers that your company is an easy target. Rather, companies that gain a reputation as “fast payers” are the ones in greater danger. A “professional” that advises a company to pay and to pay quickly – or a company that wants to “just get this over with” or “make this go away” – can indeed prolong a kidnapping and feed the overall problem.
How does paying too quickly prolong a kidnapping? Kidnapping is a profit-making business for the kidnappers, plain and simple. They hold their hostages until they feel that they have gotten everything they possibly can.
If you pay quickly, it whets the kidnappers’ appetite for more. The quick ransom gave them fast, easy money, and they are hungry for another score. That next score may well target the same payer because kidnappers will sense that the money came too easily and that there is more to be had. When companies pay too quickly, the kidnappers will communicate back, “Oh, you misunderstood: That was a down payment.”
While with the FBI, I worked more than one kidnapping in Haiti. In several of those cases, we found that payments had been made prior to FBI involvement. Kidnappings that should have lasted no more than three to four days ended up lasting three weeks.
When considering the timing of a ransom payment, it’s important to understand the difference between stalling for time, which is simplistic, and the art of creating for the kidnappers the illusion that there is no more loot to be had. Knowing how to delay without stalling will actually shorten the overall length of the ordeal. There is tremendous value in learning how to gently exhaust an opponent.
In one kidnapping case I worked in Haiti in early 2006, the family of the victim had notified the US Department of State, which notified me in Washington, D.C. I called the father in Haiti on the phone. He had been told that FBI investigators and hostage negotiators would be helping him, so I’m sure that he was expecting a knock on the door and not a phone call. (It was important for me to get the father on the phone immediately since the tone of a kidnapping is set in the first few hours. No matter what, those hours would be gone before any of us could get to Haiti.)
“You’re in Washington D.C.?” he said. “How are you gonna help me?”
I replied, “Kidnappings in Haiti typically last 36-72 hours as long as a payment isn’t made too soon. Kidnappers in Haiti have no appetite for time and tend not to kill their victims. While they kill each other at the drop of a hat, they really don’t kill kidnap victims. Today is Thursday, and Haitian kidnappers love to party on the weekends, so if we use patience as a weapon, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll get your son out by Friday night or Saturday morning.”
The father said, “Tell me what you want me to do.”
Thirty-six hours later, we had his son out. We used bait money that was not only substantially less than what the kidnappers wanted, but less than what many others had settled for. We used the process to gather all the available evidence for a follow-up prosecution, which, by agreement with the US, is first handled by local authorities. While prosecution is not the responsibility of victims, avoiding obstructing it is.
The Family. What your company can’t forget regarding the second dimension of consequence is that the family members of kidnap victims, according to one study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, may experience post-traumatic stress as much as the victims do.
The ramifications of this during a kidnapping are enormous as families, understandably, tend to get very involved during the process. The problem comes when we expect them to be reasonable. We have an ordered set of processes and procedures that we want families to follow and put their trust in, and they just don’t seem to be able to go along with the program.
Recall the father of the kidnapping victim in Haiti. I knew that at the end of each phone call we had, the fear of what might happen to his son would rush in on him like a tidal wave the moment the call ended. So I did with him what I have learned through hard experience to do for everyone I help in these situations: I told him I would call him back every hour no matter what.
This eliminates having to face the fear alone for an unknown period of time. Not knowing when it will end can make fear inescapable and overwhelming. The father knew that all he had to do was hang on for one more hour. Then that voice of calm direction with a plan for a counter-attack would return. He could do that, and he did.
In many kidnappings, more than one organization has found themselves totally at odds with a family during this type of crisis. More than one CEO has seen an angry mother become an intractable adversary because his organization’s policies called for him to deal with the next of kin, and that next of kin was the victim’s spouse. More than one director of security has found himself nose-to-nose with an infuriated sister who wouldn’t stand for what she perceived to be inaction.
This is what happened in the Philippines during the Burnham/Sobero kidnapping. Mary Jones, the sister of Gracia Burnham, was not going to sit still for long while she waited to see what the US government or the New Tribes Missions, a missionary organization, was going to do to get her sister and brother-in-law Martin out of the clutches of the Abu Sayyaf, a criminal and terrorist gang operating in the south of the Philippines, kidnapping and murdering to this day.
About half way through that 13-month kidnapping, Jones went to Manila herself and got involved. She ended up in the office of the security director for the New Tribes Missions in Manila, confronting him in a disagreement over the disposition of some of her sister’s belongings. He was following his rules regarding the disposition of belongings. Gracia Burnham was still alive, and the security director had no organizational authority to release her belongings. Mary Jones got her way. This was no time for the security director to play unyielding bureaucrat, although it took him some time to relent.  



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