We are constantly looking at case studies of missionaries, aid workers, and members of the press who have been kidnapped for ransom abroad. Some of these cases involve people being held by ISIS, Abu Sayyef, The FARC, and criminal cartels. One thing that repeatedly stands out to me, is the family is almost always caught off guard by these incidents. The other thing that stands out to me, is that the organizations in which these people serve, are also often caught off guard. While the hostage has suffers much hardship, the families are impacted as profoundly as the hostages themselves.
One of the case studies I have studied throughout my career has been the story of Martin and Gracia Burnham. The Burnhams had been missionaries in the Philippines for nearly fifteen years when they were abducted by Abu Sayef. They survived in the jungle on Basalan Island for over a year, and Martin lost his life in a rescue by the Philippine Army. The family dealt with desperation, were ignored by the government for a significant amount of time and, had it not been for September 11th 2001, may not have received any help at all. The case study made it very clear that the family was unprepared for what happened and had not even considered the possibilities. The government did become involved, and the FBI was able to assist to an extent however, it was family involvement that pushed efforts along.
Another case study about a humanitarian aid worker named Kayla Mueller, is very relevant. Kayla was kidnapped by ISIS and, while in captivity, was forced to marry Abu Omar al Baghdadi. Kayla was also held for an extended period of time, and after several failed rescue attempts, was killed in a US led air strike. The case study also made it very clear that Kayla’s family was unprepared for what transpired, and suffered greatly. The FBI did attempt to help, and provided both good and bad advice. The point is that the discussion was never had and the family received no training on what to do if some type of crisis occurred while she was working overseas. The family did receive some help and professional consultation along the way, but their best efforts were often stymied by the government.
We recommend that not only should high risk travelers (missionaries, aid workers, journalists, adventurers, vacationers, business travelers, etc) receive anti kidnapping and hostage survival training, but that their families should develop crisis response plans before their loved ones embark on their journeys. We also recommend that their host organization have a crisis plan. We have talked to hundreds of aid workers, missionaries, journalists and the companies they work for, and know that only some have received training and done the planning. The bigger reality is that most have not and do not think the training or planning is warranted. The result is that the families are impacted right along with the hostage. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and stress are a reality. If you have loved ones traveling to remote areas where something could happen or you lead an organization where people could be kidnapped, suffer from a terrorist incident, or deal with an unplanned crisis, you need a plan. Please reach out to us if you would like to develop such a plan for your family or your organization.
If you choose to do it yourself, we recommend doing some research. You should determine what crime is like where your loved one is going. You should search data bases such as the aid worker data base to see what types of threats are in the areas to which your loved one is traveling. It is important to have a family crisis committee designated. The family committee should have a spokesman to go to the media, and means to make decisions, and an understanding of what resources the family has if they have to evacuate their loved one, pay for a ransom, deal with a death, or provide evidence to an investigation. The family or organization should also have legal counsel available. The family or organization should know what medications their loved one is taking and their medical history. The family or organization should have proof of life information such as questions they could ask their captors to have answered by their loved one. The family or organization should have a last will and testament, power of attorney, and a signed consent to allow the government to monitor their phone and social media. The consent to monitor is held by the family or organization until something happens or shredded when they return from their trip. There are many other things which should be discussed ahead of time. The reality is that you will likely never need the plan but it is far better to have one, regardless.