Political Analysis


National Yemen

Abdullah al-Khalidi Arrives in King Khalid bin Abdulaziz airport

Safer Yemen conducted new study discussed the kidnappings changes and tactics in Yemen From 2010 to March 2014 there have been 47 realised kidnapping cases and more than 76 foreign victims held by kidnappers in Yemen. The country has witnessed a dramatic increase in kidnappings in this period, going from only one incident in 2010 to 19 in 2013, the highest number of incidents recorded in one year since the kidnapping of foreigners started in Yemen in the late-1980s.

The kidnappings in Yemen can be broken down into three different types: tribal, political and criminal. Each type involves a distinct set of perpetrators, motives and tactics; however, in the past three years these have often overlapped and the actors and motives of a kidnapping are often blurred. Prior to 2011, almost all kidnappings were tribal, with only one case of criminal kidnapping and very few political kidnappings. Post-2011, most kidnappings have been criminal and political and with high impact due to increased levels of violence, prolonged captivity, ill-treatment of victims and complex negotiations.

There are a number of reasons behind this trend, which have emerged from the political crisis in 2011 and the subsequent political transition. First, the Yemeni state’s capacity to provide security throughout the country has been severely restricted since 2011. Second, in parallel to tribal kidnappings in rural areas, a new form of criminal and political kidnappings in urban centres has emerged in recent years and has specifically targeted the international community and served as a political pressure tool. Third, the lack of political, legal or military consequences for kidnappers has inspired more actors to get involved. Fourth, the payment of high ransoms in several high-profile kidnapping cases involving European citizens has contributed to a perception that kidnapping is a highly lucrative activity.

Victims, perpetrators and profiling

It is a common perception that European nationalities are the main targets of kidnappings in Yemen; however, Europeans only make up about a third of kidnapping victims, roughly the same number as Middle Eastern nationalities. The last third consists of mixed nationalities; Asian, African and American.

When examining the profession of victims of kidnapping, private sector employees comprise 37% of all victims, whereas humanitarian/development workers make up 30% and diplomats 18%. The remaining 15% of kidnapping cases is split between student/tourists and journalists. In the category of humanitarian/development there have been a total of 20 attempted and realised kidnapping incidents from 2011-2014, out of which four kidnappings were tribal and 16 incidents had political dimensions. In 17 of the cases the victims worked for either UN agencies or large and well-established INGOs with security plans and operating procedures in place. In all of these 17 cases the victims maintained a high profile and moved in typical INGO/UN vehicles, such as white Land Cruisers or vehicles with white licence plates.

All of the kidnapping victims in Sana’a fall into two categories: either the victims maintained a high-profile, often through the use of high-profile vehicles, or the victims were easy targets, meaning they were moving by foot and with established routines and patterns, e.g. going to the same shops or restaurants or regularly moving to their office at fixed hours and using the same route.

The moment of capture, timings and locations

Traditionally, most kidnappings in Yemen have occurred in rural areas; however, there has been a significant shift since 2011 to an increase in incidents in urban centres. Almost 40% of the kidnappings in Yemen from 2010-2014 were carried out in Sana’a, where the vast majority of foreigners are based.

There have been a total of 36 recorded kidnapping incidents, attempted and realised, in Sana’a from 2010-2014 (March), and all of the incidents occurred while the victims were moving, either by foot or in a vehicle. Among the victims classified as easy targets over 80% were kidnapped while they were walking, whereas the majority of the high-profile victims were kidnapped while driving.

Within Sana’a a number of kidnapping hot-spots have been identified: 1) the outskirts of the Old City, including the Saila, Tahrir Square and Zubairi Street; 2) the political neighbourhood, including Algeria, Baghdad and Amman Street; and 3) Hadda area. These areas share some common features: they contain busy main roads, are close to access roads out of the city, and have a number of locations that are frequented by foreigners, including supermarkets, restaurants and cafes. In addition, a number of organisations have their offices and residences in these areas; therefore, they contain a high concentration of foreigners.

There have been increased levels of violence against victims who try to resist or escape during the moment of capture; of the 36 kidnapping incidents in Sana’a from 2010-2014, seven have involved violence against the victims, including shooting directly at victims trying to resist/escape, and four of these incidents have led to fatalities. Furthermore, in all cases where the victim had armed protection, in the form of close protection (CP) officers or police/security force escort, the kidnapping attempt resulted in fatalities of the victim(s) and/or their protection. Only one fatality has occurred during a kidnapping attempt in which there was no reported armed CP.

Period of captivity, negotiation and release

Traditionally, victims of kidnapping in Yemen have been treated well during captivity due to strong tribal norms; however, with the shift to political and criminal kidnappings there is a growing trend of victims being treated worse than previously, including the making of hostage videos and threats of killing the victim if ransoms are not met. In addition, political/criminal kidnappings on average last 40 times as long as tribal kidnappings; 200 days compared to five days. This requires significant costs and is one of the reasons victims are increasingly being sold on to other groups, such as AQAP.

In most of the kidnapping cases, including political/criminal incidents, the victims are released through a mediator, and there are often multiple mediators involved in a single case, ranging from local mediators to high-level political actors in Yemen and international organisations and governments.

Tribal kidnapping is usually solved when the perceived violation of the tribe’s rights are restored, e.g. by the government releasing prisoners, delivering jobs or building infrastructure. While in political/criminal kidnappings the payment of ransoms has become an established procedure for the release of victims. However, the payment of ransoms is a highly unsustainable solution and is a significant contributing factor in driving further kidnappings, including criminal copycat kidnappings. Despite a number of international initiatives to halt such payments there is no evidence it has stopped.

Future threats

Kidnappers have displayed a high capacity to adapt their tactics to the changing mitigation measures of the international community in Yemen and this evolution is likely to continue in a number of potential ways.

First, violence associated with kidnapping attempts has the potential to increase further, especially if the use of armed escorts becomes common practice among members of the international community or if state security forces begin to intervene in order to rescue victims during the moment of capture/transportation. In addition, a risk exists of violence against victims in captivity increasing as well as the potential killing of victims, for example, if ransom demands are not met or as a political statement. Second, it is likely that kidnappers in the future will increasingly try to capture their victims from residences (there has been only one confirmed incident to date), either by breaking into them or when the victims are entering/exiting. Third, an increase in criminal copycat kidnappings is likely due to a general increase in crime and a break-down in social and traditional norms across Yemen combined with common perceptions of very high ransom payments and low legal consequences.

Mitigating the risk

Kidnapping remains one of the main security concerns for foreigners in Yemen; however, very few traditional security measures, e.g. armoured vehicles, curfews and armed protection, have proven effective when trying to mitigate the kidnapping risk in a Yemeni context. Whereas these measures might be utilised to mitigate other threats they cannot stand alone as kidnapping mitigation, which instead requires flexible and pro-active security plans and investments in training and capacity building of staff in order to establish a culture of security. These mitigation measures should be designed according to the risk dynamics in the current Yemeni context and require staff buy-in that they are responsible for security, not only for themselves, but also for others within their organisation, their organisation’s operations, and the wider international community.

This study identified six effective mitigation strategies, which when used in combination have a significant mitigating effect, meanwhile also being very cost-effective as they do not require huge security budgets or resources to implement. In addition, the identified strategies are sustainable in that they do not contribute to an escalation in the violence associated with kidnappings. The strategies include the following guidelines: avoid walking; maintain a low-profile approach, including vehicles; vary routes and timings and limit circles of information; minimise exposure in public and avoid hot-spot areas; ensure that guards, drivers and staff are trained in counter-surveillance; and ensure background screening of staff and implement a mechanism for “safe” reporting of extortion.