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Illustration by Security Management

Mass Kidnap for Ransom Attacks Continue in Nigeria

Times have changed since 2014, when Boko Haram terrorists abducted nearly 300 female students from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. The majority of those abducted schoolgirls were forced into marriage and conversion to Islam. While a few of the remaining missing students continue to escape and resurface, CNN reported, many remain unaccounted for.

Today, however, mass kidnappings have returned to Nigerian boarding schools, but not for terrorism. Instead, the attackers have targeted schools and kidnapped dozens or hundreds of students at a time to hold them for a bulk ransom—which communities are more likely to pay.

The kidnappers have deviated from traditional kidnap and ransom (K&R) schemes, where the attackers target someone who is well-off and whose relatives are likely able to pay a high amount for their safe return. Instead, they are focusing on poor villagers, ordinary schoolchildren, and bulk ransoms.

In February, more than 300 schoolgirls were taken from their school in Zamfara state, and they were released the following week, The New York Times reported. Two weeks earlier, gunmen abducted 42 people—including 27 students—from a school in Niger state. In early March, around 30 students were taken from a forestry mechanization school, NPR reported. And on 16 March, gunmen on motorcycles stormed a primary school in the northwestern state of Kaduna and kidnapped three teachers—the fifth school abduction in three months, according to Reuters. More than 700 people have been abducted since December 2020.

Boarding schools, which are common in northwest Nigeria, often have limited or no security. In February, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari blamed state and local governments for the uptick in attacks, saying that they must improve security around schools and refute policies of paying ransoms with money and vehicles. At least $18 million was paid to kidnappers between June 2011 and March 2020, according to a report from Nigerian intelligence platform SB Morgen (SBM) Intelligence. The report, The Economics of the Kidnap Industry in Nigeria, found that the majority of that figure (nearly $11 million) was paid out from 2016 to March 2020, “indicating that kidnapping is becoming more lucrative.”

“It is important to point out that in the earlier years, there were fewer incidents, and larger amounts changed hands,” according to the report. “Now there are a lot more incidents for smaller amounts, but the sheer number of incidents, speaking to the democratization of the kidnap industry, meant that the kidnap economy now makes more money.”

More than 600 schools were closed in six northern Nigerian states over the fear of attack and abductions, according to a 16 March SBM report. State governments have closed boarding schools along border towns in Sokoto state, and governors have ordered some isolated, rural boarding schools to merge with schools in towns.

According to the Times, the new indiscriminate victim pool has led to a sharp rise in the number of deaths associated with mass kidnappings, as perpetrators consider victims’ lives more expendable. In addition, states with existing conflicts and violence have had deadlier kidnapping incidents, according to SBM, which found in its economics report that “where existing violence and/or historic violent norms have devalued human lives, crimes such as kidnapping tend to result in more fatalities.” The targeted approach to traditional K&R schemes makes victims less expendable, but by rounding up victims and demanding a ransom en masse, “victims that are unable to pay up as quickly as expected are more likely to be killed by the kidnappers.”

To learn more about the specific risks and challenges emerging around this issue in West Africa and what it means for security professionals, Security Management connected with Michael Barty, an analyst for special risks at global consultancy firm Control Risks.

SM. How are mass kidnapping threats in West Africa—particularly Nigeria—changing? Why are schools being particularly targeted for mass kidnappings and ransoms?

MB. Between 2018 and 2020, Control Risks recorded a 284 percent increase in mass kidnaps in Nigeria year-on-year. Kidnappers have realized that abducting large groups of individuals in a single operation creates an “economies of scale” effect. The cost and risk of the operation are similar, but kidnappers can demand a collective ransom from a community, the size of which cannot be replicated in a one- or two-victim abduction. This realization has led certain kidnappers towards mass kidnaps and has made kidnapping in locations with limited business presence more financially viable.

The targeting of schoolchildren is particularly effective in drawing the entire community into the ransom payment, maximizing kidnappers’ returns. The targeting of schools became particularly attractive to bandit groups after unverified media reports alleged that the kidnappers of students from a boy’s school in Kankara (Katsina state) in December 2020 obtained a ransom of approximately NGN 30 million ($78,000 USD). Regardless of truth, these reports are likely to have incentivized other groups to target schools.

How could these attacks affect businesses—both international and domestic—operating in the area? Is there an effect on workforces or are there threats to the organizations themselves?

MB. Kidnappers are generally deterred from targeting work sites by the perimeter security measures typically in place. Instead, kidnappers prefer to abduct victims from unsecured communities or on roadsides. Employees are therefore most likely to be targeted at home or when commuting to and from work. Kidnappers in some areas are known to set up roadblocks and “cherry pick” victims as they pass through, meaning that employers could see several of their employees targeted on the same day.

How do these attacks factor into the broader landscape of terrorism and banditry affecting enterprises operating in West Africa? How can organizations maintain balance in their threat and risk assessments and reports?

MB. With the exception of northeast Nigeria, kidnapping in the country remains predominantly criminal and financially motivated (as opposed to terrorist and ideologically motivated). Kidnappers will typically adopt the same strategy, regardless of whether they have abducted three people or 30, securing quick ransom payments for their victims before releasing them and moving on to the next operation.

The kidnap threat varies across West Africa, and organizations should therefore assess the kidnapping risks as they pertain directly to their location of operations. Additionally, various company-specific factors come into play when assessing kidnapping risks, including the work routines of personnel, commutes, and nationality of employees.