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Held to Ransom: Kidnapping and Extortion in the Extractive Sector

Saif Islam 15 January 2020
15 January 2020    Saif Islam

Travel Security Special Edition

S-RM's fourth annual Travel Security Special Edition

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The extractive industry – including mining, oil and gas exploration, dredging and quarrying – is one of the most vulnerable to kidnapping and extortion. Looking ahead to 2020, these industries’ often remote operating locations with limited rule of law, and the perception of industry actors as lucrative targets, are likely to persist as key factors contributing to their vulnerability. Here we highlight some of the emerging travel security trends in the sector by looking at kidnapping in Burkina Faso and Libya, and extortion in Mexico.

Kidnap Extortion SRM

A key contributor to operational vulnerability in the extractive sector (and similarly the construction and engineering sectors), is that mining sites and oil and gas fields are often located in isolated and sparsely populated areas. Remote locations tend to be more insecure not only because of threat actors’ ability to operate with relative ease, but also as a result of security forces’ inability to respond quickly. Furthermore, mining and oil and gas companies are considered among the most lucrative in the world and have occasionally paid large ransom and extortion sums. Their operations are also often located in developing and under-developed countries where the rule of law is weak, and corruption and criminality are rife, including within the government and security forces.

These factors motivate a variety of threat actors to target extractive companies and their employees. Perpetrators range from criminal gangs to terrorist organisations, armed rebel groups and community actors, who are motivated by a mix of financial gain and/or political demands. Many perpetrators, regardless of their motivations, view expatriate workers in particular as highly attractive targets, who are likely to elicit larger payments or other concessions.

The specific details of perpetrators’ identities and motivations vary widely, and inevitably reflect local political and socio-economic dynamics. In terms of the number of foreign nationals targeted, sub-Saharan Africa remains the highest-risk destination, followed by the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Latin America. However, enhanced security measures around foreign nationals are also prompting perpetrators to increase their focus towards local staff in some jurisdictions.

Case Study One: Kidnapping in Burkina Faso

SRM Map Burkina FasoThere has been a rise in kidnappings of local and foreign nationals by Islamist militants in Burkina Faso and the wider Sahel in recent years. Since 2015, there have been three kidnapping incidents targeting foreign nationals employed in the extractive sector in Burkina Faso. In the most recent instance in January 2019, a Canadian geologist was kidnapped near a mine in Tiabongou, Yagha Province, and found dead two days later. Islamist militant groups – namely Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa Al Muslimin (JNIM), Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS) and Ansaroul Islam – are believed to be behind these incidents. According to Gabrielle Reid, S-RM’s Senior Associate for the MENA and sub-Saharan Africa desks in Crisis Prevention, “Although the kidnapping of foreign nationals loosely fits within JNIM’s objectives, which include targeting Western interests in Burkina Faso and surrounding countries, these incidents have also been the result of more opportunistic attacks by outfits loosely affiliated with JNIM or Ansaroul Islam.” The threat is most prevalent in northern, central and eastern provinces, where mining operations have been increasingly coming under attack. Reid adds that while western and regional governments remain committed to counter-insurgency efforts, “These militant groups have proven highly adaptive, in part, due to their ability to leverage local networks and their knowledge of local terrain.” Consequently, the threat of kidnapping is likely to remain elevated in 2020. As such, Reid advises mining companies to especially consider vulnerabilities faced by their staff “in transit between their communities and the mining site.”


Case Study Two: Extortion in Mexico

SRM Map MexicoOrganised crime continues to pose a significant challenge to the extractive industry in Mexico. In 2018, investment in mineral exploration in the country hit a 12-year low. While this was mainly due to disruptive activities by certain local communities, security challenges – including extortion, kidnapping, armed robbery and harassment of staff – were also a major concern and have forced several mining companies to reduce operations in recent years. Organised criminal gangs have long extorted local and foreign extractive companies, especially in terms of “security fees”. Incidents of workers being extorted for sensitive operational information are also reportedly on the rise. For example, there have been several major heists targeting the extractive sector in recent years. In one such incident in November 2019, gunmen robbed a truck carrying doré bars (a semi-pure alloy of gold and silver) from a mine in Zacatecas, which were valued between USD 6-8 million. Commentators believe the success of these incidents are occasionally dependent on staff sharing information about the routes or timetables of cargo deliveries with cartels, either in collusion with them or under duress. Amidst increased cartel violence in 2019 and significant uncertainty regarding President Andrés Manuel López’s ‘hugs, not bullets’ security strategy, the threat of extortion is unlikely to decrease over the coming months


Case Study Three: Kidnapping in Libya

SRM Map LibyaThe security environment in Libya continues to be affected by intense political divisions, armed conflicts, criminality and terrorism, creating a permissive environment for kidnap by a variety of threat actors. Threat actors’ motives vary: some will seek ransom payments, while others demand political concessions. For example, in February, an armed militia kidnapped 14 Tunisian oil workers on the outskirts of Zawia, north-western Libya. The perpetrators demanded that a Libyan man jailed in Tunisia be released from prison. Security forces managed to rescue the hostages within a week. In May, Islamic State (IS) militants attacked an oilfield in central Libya, killing three security personnel and kidnapping four others, whose whereabouts are unknown. There are concerns that attacks of this nature are likely to become more common in the coming months. This is because since April, the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army’s (LNA) military offensive to capture Tripoli has led to a significant deterioration in the security environment in northern and south-western Libya, including around oil and gas assets. There have not only been inter-militia clashes for control of such assets, but also redistribution of security resources that have increased vulnerability around certain facilities that are deemed secure. This is why Reid stresses that as frontlines shift in the conflict and the deployment of LNA and GNA forces change, “Operators in country will need to anticipate where security vacuums could emerge, and whether they are appropriately appraised on emerging threats, including kidnapping, in their areas of operation.”


Read our 2020 Travel Security Special Edition for more global security insights.



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Saif Islam
Saif islam Senior Analyst, Security and Crisis Management Email Saif
Gabrielle Reid
Gabrielle reid Senior Associate, Security and Crisis Management Email Gabrielle


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