- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

Foreign civilians in Iraq for years to come will remain “prize targets” for terrorist and criminal gangs that have been able to act with growing impunity in the chaos of Iraq’s streets, according to a top British security company.

Foreigners stand about a 1-in-380 chance of being kidnapped and, if captured, about a 20 percent chance of being shot or beheaded, warns the company, which is active in Iraq. A source who provided the comprehensive 100-page report asked that the company not be named.

The document says 25 groups have taken responsibility for kidnapping foreigners for political purposes, working in tandem with various criminal gangs that kidnap mainly Iraqis for ransom. Of these, the three “most heavyweight insurgent/kidnap groups” appear intact despite major counterinsurgency offensives in the past year, the report says.

Data in the report shows that the April and November military assaults on Fallujah had a dramatic and immediate impact on the number of kidnap operations in Iraq’s four majority Sunni provinces, but that the incidents resumed again in each case after no more than a few weeks.

Hostage-taking has spiked during periods of increased disorder and violence when kidnap gangs feel bolder, it says, but both political and criminal groups are liable to strike at any time against foreigners who live in poorly secured areas or fail to take adequate security measures.

“Everyone is a target,” the report warns, adding that numerous foreign civilian kidnapping survivors reported that they had not considered themselves at risk because they were journalists, aid workers or Muslims.

The number of Iraqis taken hostage is much higher than for foreigners, but the total number of incidents is unknown because many cases go unreported or misreported.

The report documents 264 foreign civilian kidnappings from April 1, 2004, to Jan. 31, 2005. Roughly a fifth of those — 47 — taken hostage were killed. Another fifth — 56 — are still missing. More than half — 150 — were released. Five escaped and only six were rescued.

Estimating that at least 100,000 expatriates have worked in Iraq in the past 22 months, the company says each foreigner who came to Iraq since May 2003 “has stood a 1 in 379 probability of being kidnapped.”

Kidnapping for ransom or as a terrorist tactic has been commonly used around the world, the report said. But in Iraq, gangs have capitalized on the inability of the coalition military or domestic security forces to enforce law and order and transformed hostage-taking into an effective strategic weapon.

As the kidnappings evolve, “we can expect to see the list of victims documented in this report continue to grow and perhaps an accumulation of hostages,” it says.

“We can also expect to see further commercialization as ransoms increasingly become part of the demands. And we can expect to see more specialization as specialized gangs, often mercenary, carry out the actual abductions on commission or on spec and then offer their hostages to bloody-minded militants or other buyers.”

The report cites two types of kidnapping tactics, the first involving opportunistic attacks on moving vehicles. The second type of attacks — on residences and offices — are planned well in advance, with attackers often doing weeks of reconnaissance and even “dry runs” before the actual seizure.

Regional underworld criminal networks are a “bedrock” for the Iraq kidnap industry and work in tandem with the politically motivated insurgent groups, says the report, compiled by company intelligence analysts using open and closed local and foreign sources.

The three most lethal kidnap groups are named as al Qaeda in Iraq (or al Qaeda of Jihad in the land of Two Rivers), Ansar al-Sunnah (Army of the Defenders of the Traditions of the Prophet Mohammed) and the Iraqi Islamic Army.

“There will be no lasting reduction in the kidnap threat — to both foreigners and locals — until there is a significant increase in employment opportunities for Iraqis, security forces are capable of enforcing law and order and Sunni-stronghold areas are permanently brought back into the political fold,” the report says.

“These advances will more likely take years than months to occur,” the report concludes.

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