Kidnapping for ransom or for political ends has become a key component of Iraq's resistance movement. But while terrorist kidnappers have long been able to attract publicity, create crises and occasionally obtain political concessions, insurgents in Iraq are the first in the annals of terrorism to transform kidnapping into a strategic weapon.
Consider these events from recent weeks: An American civilian working to improve water and food distribution in Iraq was kidnapped and shown on a video tape pleading for his life. A Pakistani embassy employee was abducted in Baghdad as he traveled to a mosque for prayers. And a French journalist, kidnapped early this year, now has been held by insurgents for more than 100 days.
Iraq presents ideal conditions for kidnappings. The country is mired in conflict. Government authority is weak. Police are largely ineffectual. On top of this, the country is filled with guns and explosives, along with large numbers of unemployed veterans skilled in violence.
Taking advantage of the breakdown in authority after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, criminal gangs began kidnapping Iraqis, at first targeting mainly Christians who had no protection from Iraq's tribal structure. When Iraqi resistance groups started kidnapping foreign civilians in April of last year, some analysts warned that kidnappings would increase as kidnappers honed their skills, creating domestic crises for coalition partners. Corporations and some governments would put money on (or under) the table to save lives and get out of difficult situations, thereby encouraging further kidnappings.
Coalition and Iraqi officials in Baghdad, already distracted by the deteriorating security situation at the time, discounted the kidnapping threat, arguing that kidnappers would have little leverage in the midst of a war. With people dying every day, the death of a hostage would be seen as just another wartime casualty.
In the past 12 months, well over 200 civilians from 36 countries have been kidnapped. Precise figures are hard to come by; some kidnappings are not reported while efforts are underway to bring about the release of the hostages. Nearly two-thirds of the hostages have been released; a handful escaped or were rescued.
Between 15 and 20 percent were killed, at least 15 by beheading. If roughly the same outcomes apply to the remaining hostages still held or unaccounted for; the percentage murdered by their captors would come to 20 percent. This is roughly twice the fatality rate seen in Colombia or other countries where kidnapping is endemic but the goals are primarily economic. Iraqi kidnappers clearly are a deadlier bunch, and they have used the threat of beheadings and other forms of murder as an effective part of their campaign of terror.
A recent report by Olive Security, a British security consulting firm based in London, notes that more than 20 resistance groups have carried out kidnappings in Iraq. Some of the kidnappers have been linked with one another or merely use different noms de guerre for individual operations. Others are little more than criminal gangs who kidnap on spec, then sell their hostages to militant groups or to the highest bidder.
“Al Qaeda of Jihad in the Land of Two Rivers,” the demanding new brand name for the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has been the most active and most lethal insurgent group. Although it has not claimed responsibility for any kidnappings this year, it has kidnapped more foreign civilians than any other group, 14 of whom it has killed. Six of its kidnap victims were beheaded, including British citizens Kenneth Bigley and Margaret Hassan. Zarqawi's terrorist group is also the most media savvy, dressing its hostages in orange jumpsuits like those worn by Muslim detainees in U.S. custody, and videotaping the ritualistic hostage beheadings that offer vicarious satisfaction to those enraged by the abuse of Muslim prisoners.
The first kidnappings in Iraq confirmed that despite the background bloodshed of an ongoing war, hostage situations could still gain worldwide publicity and create domestic political crises, especially for coalition partners facing strong domestic opposition to the war. The kidnappers' demands are calculated to curry favor in Iraq and undermine support for the coalition abroad. Kidnappers have demanded the release of female prisoners, the rebuilding of houses destroyed by coalition operations, the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq, demonstrations against coalition membership, and a halt to operations by foreign companies in Iraq.
Although these demands have been met in only a few cases, the kidnappings have proven to be an exceptionally effective strategy. Kidnappers have portrayed the abductions and "executions" as just retribution for the mistreatment of Muslim prisoners and for the humiliation suffered by the Arab world, demonstrating visible action at a time when no government or group was seen to do more than denounce these insults.
The Iraqi Islamic Army, another distinct insurgent group, has demonstrated an appetite and skill for this sort of divisive politicking through their selection and treatment of kidnapping targets based upon nationality. The group beheaded two Pakistanis they had abducted last July after Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf suggested sending troops to Iraq.
More of those killed in Iraq have died in ambushes and bombings, but kidnappings personalize the violence. Iraqi government officials and foreign nationals, already isolated by security requirements, have been driven behind guards and gates.
True, only the Philippines acceded to kidnappers' demands and pulled its forces out ahead of schedule, but the surge in kidnappings coincided with intensified U.S. efforts to attract additional support from other countries. But no new nations signed on to send troops to Iraq. Who wanted the grief?
The kidnappings have slowed reconstruction. Some companies complied with kidnappers' demands to quit Iraq. Others have deferred going in. Capitalism is tough, but it is not immune to calculations of risk and sound economics. Security costs have jumped from 10 percent to 30 percent — a burden many smaller companies cannot afford. Oil and gas development has been delayed. Aid organizations have pulled out. Investments have been deferred. Spooked by the threat of further kidnappings in Iraq and facing continued strong domestic opposition to involvement in Iraq, the Government of the Philippines has now asked the 6,000 Filipino civilians still working in Iraq to leave the country.
Frightened locals, like the Christians, are also leaving and creating a brain drain at a time when Iraq needs its talented people most. All of this has put Iraq's economy on hold. Unemployment, already estimated to be as much as 40 of Iraq's workforce, will remain high for the foreseeable future.
While the world's media focuses on the foreigners taken hostage, kidnappings pose a much greater threat to Iraqis — an average of four Iraqis are kidnapped every day. Some estimate the total number of Iraqis kidnapped and ransomed to be in the thousands. The incentive here, however, is economic. Even with modest ransoms, it is a lucrative enterprise.
Kidnappings of foreign nationals have declined for several reasons. Kidnappers depleted easy-to-grab soft targets. (None of the victims had armed close protection.) Those who cannot afford security have pulled out. Coalition offensives like that in Fallujah have overrun hideouts while the insurgents are currently devoting their attention to attacks on Iraqi security forces. The jihadists also appear to be sensitive to backlash against the beheadings in the Muslim community. But kidnappings will remain part of the resistance repertoire. Two Americans, a French reporter, and a Pakistani diplomat are still among those being held.
We can expect to see the continued accumulation of hostages, commercialization of kidnapping as cash ransoms increasingly become part of the demands by kidnappers, and specialization by kidnappers. Some will specialize in abductions, others in custody and negotiations. Regular intermediaries will emerge. Specialized consultants, already on the scene, will increasingly play a role on behalf of private corporations.
No-concessions policies may have some effect although determined parties will find ways to move money around them. Kidnappers seem to be learning which countries are more inclined to pay. Suppressing news coverage of hostage pleas and bloody murders is virtually impossible to accomplish, although the foreign news media have become more wary about being manipulated by the kidnappers.
Demonstrations of military superiority will not deter the kidnappers. Improving overall security is prerequisite, but by itself will not suffice. Reducing the kidnapping threat will require vastly improved law enforcement, and that could take years. U.S. and Iraqi authorities are now working more closely on the problem. In the meantime, security will depend on private remedies: private security, private negotiations, tribal reprisals.
© 2005 Chicago Tribune
Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. Meg Williams is Head of Risk Analysis and Ed Williams is a Senior Risk Analyst at Olive Security.
This commentary originally appeared in Chicago Tribune on April 29, 2005.