In many places around the world, kidnap for ransom is becoming an increasingly popular way for organised criminal gangs to supplement their income. Personnel in the energy sector, which are often required to work in some of the world’s most hostile environments, are now being targeted by criminal elements that see them as potentially lucrative assets. Although the risk remains significant in all countries where governance is weak and impunity rife, there are regional differences that those considering working abroad should bear in mind. Whilst the risk in the Middle East is largely static for those in the oil sector, the risks in one of the fastest developing markets, Latin America, is on the rise as organised crime seeks to diversify its income.
Latin America’s changing landscape
Whilst many of the former kidnapping hotspots in Latin America have calmed down somewhat over the course of the past decade, including the Andean nations and even Argentina, others such as Colombia and Venezuela have remained a constant. As recently as 8 June, three Chinese oil workers and their translator – also thought to be Chinese – were kidnapped whilst travelling through San Vicente de Caguan in the southern province of Caqueta in Colombia. The three oil workers were contracted from Sinochem by British Oil company Emerald Energy. In March 2011, 22 workers contracted by the Canadian energy firm Talisman were also abducted from their rural outpost although all but one of these were rescued the following day by members of the Colombian military. Indeed, the number of individuals kidnapped has increased by over 30% over the past year, according to official statistics.
Although the country’s armed forces are doubtless in a much better position than ten years ago, having the ability to launch large-scale rescue operations quickly and effectively, the intent of criminal organisations and leftist guerrilla groups to abduct individuals with links to prominent organisations remains high. Similarly, countries such as Mexico which were previously hospitable to foreign energy firms have seen a dramatic increase in violence targeted at the energy industry, especially in the northern border states. Several Mexican workers have been threatened, beaten, abducted and killed and whilst the appetite for holding high profile individuals for financial return is not yet as high here as in other countries in the region, the threat to personnel there is considerable.
Unlike Latin America, where the number of absolute kidnaps continues to rise, the risk in Africa remains fairly constant. The areas around the Gulf of Guinea and Nigeria still constitute the highest risks, with piracy off the coast of Somalia also posing a threat to the oil workers. The oil sector is targeted in a number of ways including bunkering, criminal damage of oil structures (both at land and at sea) as well as kidnap for ransom. An amnesty that was offered in October 2009 remains tenuous with delays in stipend payments to Delta communities triggering localised unrest. Most groups active in the Niger Delta have recently threatened renewed attacks against the oil and gas sector. Attacks on oil companies in the Niger Delta therefore will remain a threat, and could increase in the medium to long term if militant demands are not met.
In Somalia the main concern remains piracy, as opposed to kidnap for ransom. The greatest risk here is to the crew of oil tankers transporting the oil product. Although oil tankers were for quite some time regarded as a difficult vessel type to hijack, they have also consistently resulted in the largest ransoms when negotiations are finally completed with the owner. With ransom figures as high as US$13.5 million they are a highly attractive prize, despite being difficult to commandeer. At the time of writing, Somali pirates are in possession of over 20 vessels with well over 500 captive.
In contrast to Latin America and Africa, foreign nationals in this region tend to be targeted due to their western appearance as opposed to their profession, meaning that in most incidences of kidnap for ransom of oil workers the job the victim does is incidental. The worst affected areas in the region for kidnap in general continue to be Algeria, Yemen and Iraq. Most of the kidnaps tend to be opportunist, enacted by a variety of different groups and tribal factions, most of which will seek an economic resolution to the abduction even if at first their aims were political, although the fate of each victim will depend on the nature of the group itself. In all three of these countries the risks to foreign personnel are considerable, and although they are unlikely to apply to oil sector workers exclusively – many of which are protected by extensive security measures at major installations – oil workers should remain aware of the degree to which their profile affects their attractiveness as a target.
Coping with risk
Although the risks of kidnap for ransom are relatively high in most hostile environments, it is clear that the risks differ in nature and severity depending on the operating environment. Except for some areas in Latin America, the overall risk is declining as concerted efforts are made to strengthen governance and accountability in the affected regions and as the oil sector grows wiser to the threats posed to its personnel. Understanding the difference between the regions and the nature of the threats likely to be faced there should be the foundation of any risk mitigation strategy designed to cope with the threat of kidnap for ransom. As the recent spates of kidnappings demonstrate, preparedness is key to ensuring a safe operating environment in those parts of the world where such conditions cannot be taken for granted.
Author: Taryn Evans is an Intelligence Analyst at AKE Group Ltd., a global security and risk management firm. For more information on our services, including crisis management, training and intelligence please contact us at +44 (0) 20 7816 5454, firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.akegroup.com.