The Victim, the Family, the Company: The Three Dimensions of Consequence During a Kidnapping
In a kidnapping scenario, companies must successfully navigate the three dimensions of consequence to best protect the life of the victim and the company. (Online Exclusive)
One of your employees has been kidnapped overseas. You feel the initial shock of hearing the news. Your instant reaction is “I’m responsible. He’s there on my behalf. We’re going to get him out if I have to myself.” Your mind springs into gear. You go through your mental list of processes and procedures, thinking about how your organization will accomplish this task. If, in that moment, you are thinking about changing your approach to making decisions in a crisis, you may be admitting to yourself that you are not completely satisfied with your company’s existing decision-making structure.
There’s a reason for that: most organizations only know the environment they exist in where consequences and ramifications are well understood through collective experience. You and your employees have come to know the “if … thens” of your industry: if this action occurs, then this reaction will follow.
A kidnapping strikes you with a sequence of unknowns. Those who are used to weighing in suddenly find themselves facing a deep, black void. Decision makers and stakeholders struggle to apply their collective experience—their “if … thens”—but during a kidnapping everything appears frighteningly new. The decision-making process grinds to a halt. Now that lives are on the line you fear that a wrong decision or a wrong move will cause disaster. Inaction can become what appears to be the safest response. Kidnappings are not like everyday situations, but they have their own set of “if … thens.”
In a kidnapping scenario, decisions must be made in light of three dimensions of consequences. A seasoned kidnap and ransom (K&R) professional makes all the difference integrating these three areas legitimately and morally. You must ensure your professional understands the three dimensions of consequence. If the seasoned professional you work with can’t or doesn’t talk with you about these three distinct areas, it’s a bad sign.
Three Dimensions of Consequence
The primary dimension of consequence is the life of the victim. While it seems obvious, this apparently clear fact can become startlingly obscure as you are made painfully aware of other consequences.
The second dimension of consequence is the victim’s family and colleagues, and the impact and ramifications the kidnapping will have on them. This dimension is the most often overlooked during preparations and the one that will likely present you with the most problems during a kidnapping (hard to believe but true).
The third dimension of consequence is the ramifications for your organization or business. This area of consequence is never overlooked but most often secretly obsessed over. It somehow seems immoral to worry about the impact on your company when one of your employees' lives is threatened. Yet the company still represents a source of livelihood for that employee and many other employees as well. While it isn’t a consideration to be elevated over the life of the hostage at any time, neither is it a consideration you can abandon.
All three dimensions tend to converge over the central issue of ransom. This is one of the horns of the dilemma upon which your organization will find itself impaled. Among those affected, there will be many conflicting opinions on how to deal with the issue of ransom.
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.
In the end, this case taught me how to properly support a family.
The US Department of State’s American Citizen Services have some phenomenal people. One of them working on the Burnham/Sobero kidnapping was a great guy named Ted, who made it a point to call up family members every few days to brief them and answer their questions, whether he had anything new to say or not. He’d often say, “I’m calling to let you know I’ve got nothing new to tell you.” The family respected his candor and his consistency. They never had to wait wondering if they were going to hear from him. He became a constant, someone they knew they could rely upon in the midst of chaos.
Unfortunately, the Burnham/Sobero case ended in tragedy. Guillermo Sobero, who was an American citizen, and a number of Filipino hostages were beheaded in the early days. Thirteen months later, in the kidnapping’s final event, Deborah Yap and Martin Burnham were killed, while Gracia was wounded in a botched rescue attempt by the Philippine military.
Families will not sit still during a kidnapping and let the “professionals” handle it. They will become very involved. They will check every internet source, call every government agency, and ask many pointed questions. They will ask the same questions of many different people and seize with suspicion on any variation between answers.
They are entitled to this. A kidnapping is a family’s darkest hour. When the incident is all over, the rest of us move on, and they are the ones left to pick up the pieces.
Involve your human resources people in the process and preparation. They will be invaluable. Let human resources partner with your security personnel and support the family.
The Employer. There is nothing wrong with preserving and protecting the interest and the image of the victim’s company. The company most likely has a legitimate purpose that in turn provides a livelihood that supports families, that ensures their place as a productive and contributing member of several communities. This is an important aspect to be considered when making decisions during a kidnapping crisis.
First, utilize ethical professionals. Ask your K&R consultant how, not if, they deal with National Security Presidential Directive-12
(NSPD-12). The directive is the U.S. policy on kidnapping. It was signed in 2002 by George W. Bush and has survived because it is a sound policy. A portion of it is classified. Shockingly, many K&R professionals who were doing business prior to its signing not only do not follow NSPD-12, they have never even seen it.
NSPD-12 is a policy and not a law. It plays a major role in determining whether a company or person has broken the law. Not only your K & R professional, but your company’s lawyer, needs to know it. Don’t ask your lawyer to learn it in the middle of a crisis. When is the worst time to ask a lawyer a question? When you need an answer. Ask them before you need the answer. Give them a chance to research it and give you a good, solid answer.
The primary principle in NSPD-12 is transparency. This can be a little difficult to grasp when the document itself is written a little “gray.” K&R professionals and government officials alike aren’t all that familiar with its nuances. When I was in Baghdad in May of 2005, I brought the document to the attention of one of Department of State’s primary legal counsels in the embassy there. The attorney had never heard of it.
At the time, Baghdad was experiencing a kidnap-for-ransom boom that was unprecedented in modern times. Baghdad was literally the kidnapping capital of the world, and the trend had sprung up in a matter of a few short months. The kidnap-for-ransom spike was a phenomenon that surpassed anything seen even in Mexico or Colombia. Yet in the midst of this explosion, many US-government personnel didn’t even know that there was a US-kidnapping policy known as NSPD-12. Even one of their primary legal advisors was unaware of the policy’s existence.
If your K& R professional doesn’t believe in transparency with US government authorities, then there must be reasons for this, and none of them are good. Even if the victim is not a US citizen, US laws can still be broken, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the Material Support to Terrorism laws. Transparency is still the key, and the process can still be worked in a way that protects your company, even if during the crisis you are dealing with US-government officials who are ignorant of the policy.
The worst time to ask people to learn to make high-stakes, instant decisions under pressure is when lives are literally on the line. There is no substitute for practice. If your K & R professional can’t come to your organization and help you prepare with a practical simulated kidnapping exercise, find one who can. You can prepare and you can be ready.
In a crisis, we do not rise to the occasion. We fall to our highest level of preparation.
is the Managing Director at Insite Security
and leader of the firm’s Kidnapping Resolution Practice. Mr. Voss was formerly Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU) from 2000 to 2007 and the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI
♦ Photo by Katie Tegtmeyer/Flickr