Australian kidnapped in Afganistan. 

Katherine Jane Wilson a member of the Zardozi charity is another victim of Afghan Kidnap and Ransom. The 60 year old snatched from her villa in the eastern city of Jalalabad (J’bad) in the early hours of 28th April by armed men in uniforms.

There is little information at present, but there is enough for a few important points to be highlighted. Using my six years of practitioner experience in Aghanistan – one of which was spent in J’bad, and my involvement in a number of kidnap for ransom (K&R) cases,  I’m going to discuss the recent abduction to see if there are any lessons learned that can be used to benefit other organisations working in the region.

Ms Wilson who has worked in the country for nearly 20 years was involved in a women’s  empowerment programme in Nangahar – one of the countries eastern provinces – the population almost entirely consisting of members of Afghanistan’s largest tribe, the Pashtuns. You might be of the opinion that teaching women to sew is a benign act, but not so. It has inherent danger.  As in a male dominated environment it can be seen as interference, something that I found when I was involved in a similar programme in Helmand. Point one, be aware of the situational context of the programme, ensuring that it does not interfere with the cultural norms or aspirations of the local populace.

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Handmade items manufactured by a womens empowerment programme in Jalalabad

Ms Wilson arrived in J’bd the day before the the abduction, staying at a prearranged location which I’m assuming she used previously. At 4am the kidnappers arrived, made a B line for her and then left. There is no doubt in my mind that information was passed to the abductors of her arrival by someone close to her. It is a common theme present in all my K&R cases. The Afghan police also know this, the eight arrests that have been made resulting in their investigation including staff from the villa, testament to this modus operandi. Point two, ensure that the people that work for you are screened by security.

There are ways to check on your people and it doesnt have to be obtrusive. Your organisation might well have access to the comprehensive databases that have been developed in Afghanistan by the security forces. Another way would be to get an assurance from the candidates tribal elder or imam that they are of good character. The latter might sound thin, but in a society governed by Pashtunwali (the code of the Pashtun) the word of an individual is taken very seriously.

Ms Wilson’s security when needed most was found lacking, it did not survive contact. Why was this? Again not enough information to make an informed decision, but bear with me as I try to explain the concept of NGO security strategies. There are three strategies commonly used: protection, deterrence and acceptance. I don’t want to bore you with all the technical stuff, but what this boils down to within an Afghan context is whether you security is armed or not.

NGOs like to use the acceptance strategy, its a softer approach and doesn’t use weapons, the  tactic utilising the local population in providing protection. For example; an aid worker imbedded in the community, working on their behalf, producing tangible results would be of great benefit to the populace and as a result the community would want to protect them – keep them out of harms way. But this strategy only works if the community in question is able to control the area, the methodology working well in villages in Africa. The effectiveness of using this tactic in J’bad – a city with a population of 350,000 – while delivering a possibly contentious women empowerment programme might not be the best solution. Point three, does your security match the current threats? Is it fit for purpose? Sometimes using the acceptance strategy is like taking a knife to a gun fight.

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Site of the kidnapping, the drive leading to the main villa

From the evidence provided by Tolo news I was able to identify the villa as a guest house in Police District 2 of J’bad, just off the Chaprahar Rd. I know this place well as I had stayed in it on many occasions, on each visit – anxious of the vulnerability of the site – taking a AK-47 to bed with me just in case. I raised my concerns with the organisation that I was working for at the time, but was ignored. In October 2010 the compound was attacked. The Taliban using explosives before initiating a gun fight with the security team, who luckily in this instance were armed. Point four, choose secure accommodation that has sufficient security provision. In Afghanistan security at locations is often provided by the local police force who are happy to augment existing security measures.

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View of the drive from the villa as it was in 2010

Those of you familiar with health and safety
legislation will know that if you identify a risk you own it, and have to take steps to mitigate against it. Risk management in high threat areas is exactly the same. Just because an individual has chosen to expose themselves to a greater degree of danger doesn’t mean that this principal can be ignored. The legal defence of an employer citing violenti non fit injuria – the individual accepting the inherent danger – unlikely to be looked upon favourably if it was tested by jurisprudence.

Experts are citing that there is evidence to suggest that incidents of K&R are growing exponentially on an international basis. Looking through the optic of Afghanistan this would seem to be the case, with members of humanitarian organisations being the prime targets. For example two members of the German organisation GIZ were kidnapped in 2015. This evidence can not be ignored, the stage has been set. Organisations that do nothing or little, doing so at their own peril, the consequences severe.

As well as the horrific personal cost to individuals and their families involved in K&R there can also be an impact on the organisation. Take for example the case of Steve Dennis. Mr Dennis was working for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Kenya when he was kidnapped. Despondent at the way he was treated by NRC he sued. The result in December 2015 was a landmark ruling that was heralded as a wake-up-call for the NGO industry. He was awarded 4.4 million krone, NRC publicly admitting gross negligence.

I would like to stress the point that I am in know way insinuating that Zardozi was at fault in Ms Wilsons abduction. Also, as someone who audits security policies and procedures for organisations, I dont want to seem judgemental on Zardozi security provisions, as in not knowing all the facts it would be wrong of me to do so.

So why then am I bothering to publish this article. My answer is simple; as a practitioner I believe that any relevant and time bounded information in the field of security needs to be made public, so that other organisations can learn from belligerent actors tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs). In doing so, establishments can then adapt their security provisions accordingly, thus ensuring that there is sufficient resilience in the operational platform to deal with even the most extreme of incidents.

10 Comments

  • “I do not have the physical or the human resources to secure this location”. Sounds familiar!
    Have to question the involvement of the police….sounds familiar!

    • RBell61, Yes I do remember the comment. I was flabergasted when I received it, but proven right when a short time after the compound was attacked. Luckily only the bad guys were hurt. The team I put in place capable of dealing with attack when it happened. I learned so much from that assignment. It was a salient moment in my career. And have taken the knowledge from that near miss and utilised it in the various scenarios that I have encounterded ever since. Sometimes you need to get close to the abyss to see how deep it is. Will also never forget the fact that Hendricks gin is better served with cucumber 🙂

  • Richard, good article with many valid points. As someone who has dealt with long term K&R in Afghanistan I’m all too familiar with their tactics. Do not underestimate the ability and training of those who carry out planned abductions. As always, on hand to help with NGOs.

    • Andy

      Terrorist groups are described like ‘complex adaptive systems,’ in other words they learn from their mistakes. We dont know if there were any insurgent/Taliban/IS invovment in this latest K&R, but what we can be sure of is that they are watching and doing so closely. As you rightly mention they cannot be underestimated, the only way of mitigating the risk of an occurance, thighter operating procedures.

  • This is, overall, a great article. It remains to be seen if anyone learns from it (defined as behavioral change) or if it just singing to the choir. I do have a couple of points for consideration:
    1. “be aware of the situational context of the programme, ensuring that it does not interfere with the cultural norms or aspirations of the local populace.” Cultural norms and aspirations are not always the same thing. Where they diverge there is conflict. In this case, anyone — and especially outsiders — being associated with either norms or aspirations will be considered by the other faction as a threat.

    2. Police records/data base vs. tribal leader assurance. The recurring incidents of “insider threats” where police or ministry of interior screened personnel committing acts of violence indicate that police/MoI screening may be important, but it cannot be relied upon. Elder assurance is more personal and may grant protection under hospitality customs. The elder also assumes a degree of accountability for the person he recommends. (If the elder is not himself a security risk.)

    3. Acceptance is ideal, but we do not live in ideal world. Also note that NGO decision to pursue an acceptance strategy may be driven by more cost rather than by altruism. Acceptance is, by far, the cheapest security strategy — until the courts get involved due to it also being a strategy of negligence.

    4. If you identify a risk, you own it. True. Also true for risks a reasonable person in a that situation should have identified but did not. Especially true for supervisory persons.

    • Chris,

      Thanks for the comments, its always great to get someone elses persepective on things. Especially like the bit on altruism. I thought about putting a bit in the article about aid workers having to be sometimes protected against themselves. I have seen a number go native as it were – get condumed by their surroundings. However even these individuals still have a responsibility to the organisataion that is employing them, their conduct reflecting on how the NGO is perceived by the greater community.

  • Hi Dick,
    Good article, mate. I’ve noticed also that sometimes expatriates who spend extremely long periods in a country can become a bit casual about the need for security measures, often using the argument that having an increased security presence only attracts unwanted attention. Now I’m not saying that this is the case here as I have no inside knowledge of the situation at all, but it is something to be aware of. I know we had this situation on the LARA project in Kabul and Jalalabad in 2011. Anyway, I certainly hope the Australian woman who was kidnapped is released soon. By the way, I’m looking forward to your book coming out soon.
    Cheers, Gary

    • Gary,

      I would totally agree with your observations about some expats becoming complacent with their surroundings, even if those surroundings are dangerous. I believe that ultimately security rests on the shoulders of the individual – you wouldnt put your hand in the fire even if requested to do so now would you? However having said that, that is no excuse for the employer to water down their responsibilities. As I mentioned in the reply (below) to Chris Mayer, I have had cases where individuals have had to be protected against themselves, their actions – harmless in their eyes – being detrimental to others involved in the organisation. Again, I’m not suggesting that Ms Wilson was one of these individuals, but even if she was, the employer is the fail-safe mechanism for her protection. That would be complicated I can hear people asking, but I would suggest otherwise. Having a set of SOPs with minimum standards in place is relitivley strainght forward to do. If the individual or organisation fall short of the minimum standars then corrective measures can be taken to rectify. This is all basic risk management principles, but I can assure you that even some large concerns dont have the correct procedures in place. I have seen it first hand where security operators put in charge of international staff members didnt have a clue as to write a risk assessment – I kid you not!
      I have confidence that Ms Wilson will be released unharmed as recent events have shown this. The case of the GIZ staff member kidnapped last summer setting precedent, her release taking six weeks. In the mean time my thoughts are with her family and friends during this horrific time.

  • Richard, a host of good points. As for your point 1 would say that we all interfere with Afghan cultural norms. That is perhaps one of the points of the whole exercise? But I read you that we should not try to be overly annoying – or make sure we can match the threat. As for your point two – I recognize the merit of a screening, but know from experience how hard it is. Afghans (Pashtunwali aside) are quite opportunistic and have been known to switch sides. There are layers few expats penetrate – even Pashto or Dari speakers – Ms Wilson had +20 years experience in country. Complacency.? Maybe.
    In the last 3 kidnappings of expats the MO has been the same. Police arrived 10 minutes after the take and arrested all staff. You mention the Steve Dennis case – the common denominator in his (and the other 3 hostages) and all the recent Afghan cases is; Keep your movements to yourself. Change your patterns. Do not be predictable.
    Afghanistan is sliding towards worse security and a free for all. The last 4 kidnappings have been perpetrated by ACG’s with the support of the police and the nod from above. NGO’s and agencies need to prepare.

    • Bo, I believe that risk management is not an exact science and as long as the objective is achieved the methodology used is a secondary concern. Complacency might be a factor in this case but without knowing all the facts it would be difficult to judge, however I have seen – as I’m sure you have – a number cases where an individuals empathy to their surroundings has decreased their situational awarness. The result ending in negative consequences.
      The overall purpose of this article was not to aportion blame but to hopefuly instigate a thought process amongst the NGO community on what they can do to offset another occurrence and I totaly agree with your comment on preparation. It is the key protecting staff members in vulnerable environments.

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