When kidnapping victims Canadian Edith Blais and Italian Luca Tacchetto held a press conference on March 14 in Mali, following nearly four months in captivity, they appeared amused and confused when Bamako officials publicly greeted them with an elbow bump due to new coronavirus etiquette. The world has changed rapidly and as confirmed coronavirus cases are ticking up across urban areas in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, the pandemic poses unprecedented challenges to fragile states’ internal political and economic conditions. It is expected to trigger a spike in kidnap for ransom activity in countries where the crime is already rife.
Not only is the pandemic acting as a smokescreen for ongoing and increasing geopolitical friction, countries such as Nigeria, Libya, Yemen, Venezuela, and Mexico -- where kidnap for ransom is more prevalent -- are expected to see widespread unrest due to a disruption in humanitarian aid flows, peace operations and diplomacy. Factors that contribute to kidnap for ransom, such as weak institutions, lack of rule of law and poverty, are likely to be exasperated by the virus’ economic and political consequences. The frequency of kidnap for ransom is likely to increase in regions and countries where the crime is largely opportunistic -- such as in South America -– as well as places where large segments of the working class will fail to find alternative income -- such as in sub-Saharan Africa. We also expect to see an increase in areas where militant groups will use the pandemic as a distractor for their political agenda, such as in Yemen, Syria and in the wider Sahel.
Although the quiet streets and reduction in foreign visitors will temporarily quell some kidnap for ransom activity in the immediate term, criminal and militant groups are projected to exploit the pandemic to advance their agendas in the medium and longer terms. Early indicators of this can already be seen, including riots in Niger, prison breaks in Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and Lebanon and militant activity and social disorder in Mali and Nigeria -- countries that relies heavily on its export links to China. In fact, on March 23, two professional football league players were kidnapped along the Benin-Owo expressway after the suspension of the Nigeria elite division due to coronavirus. The same day, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea were undeterred by COVID-19 when they boarded a Portuguese-flagged and Greek-owned containership and kidnapped seven Ukrainian crew members.
Terrorist groups such as ISIS in Syria and al Shabaab in Somalia have regularly exploited disorder in the past to gain fighters and supporters, and the current pandemic is not expected to be an exception. On March 24, Islamist group Boko Haram acted in this vein, launching the deadliest assault on Chad's armed forces in recent history, with at least 92 soldiers killed. On March 25, Libya’s Tripoli saw the worst night of violence since 2014 despite a COVID-19 related curfew in place from 6:00 pm - 6:00 am.
The countries and cities that will be impacted the most remains to be seen. Regions that will be hardest hit are those that already lie at the cross section of an unstable security environment, high levels of criminality and systemic corruption. There are arguments that the virus may lead to stabilization and opportunities for dialogue in some circumstances. Yet, as livelihoods are suspended, security forces overstretched and social inequality worsens, thousands of impoverished individuals will look towards alternative income to feed their families -- with kidnap for ransom and maritime hostage taking potentially being one of the more lucrative sources for cash.