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In Syria, Kidnapping Becomes a ‘Big-Money Business’

Peter N. Bouckaert, the Geneva-based emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, explains the sudden rise in kidnappings across Syria.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Karen Leigh, managing editor, Syria Deeply: Can you talk about the rise in kidnappings and the types of kidnappings?

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Peter N. Bouckaert: The kidnappings have been going on for about a year, it’s really intensified. It started mostly when fighting broke out in Aleppo, and developed and grown since then into a broader trend across many parts of Syria, and also spilling into neighboring countries. A couple different kinds of kidnapping take place. A lot of them are criminal in nature by groups that say they have an affiliation with Jabhat al-Nusra, and they try to kidnap wealthy Syrians and some journalists for ransom.

A second kind is more sectarian in nature, “tit for tat” kidnappings between different sides. So a Sunni will get kidnapped by Alawites or Shia, and his relatives will go kidnap Alawites or Shia, hold them hostage and try to make an exchange. We’ve especially seen that in the Lebanese border area.

Then there are [random] disappearances, where people are taken by unknown gunmen and never seen again. That’s the case with the two archbishops of Aleppo, and it’s not necessarily a case for ransom. As the fighting has become a lot more sectarian in the last months as fighting increases with Hezbollah, there are fears we’ll see a significant rise in kidnappings that lead to executions based on a sectarian basis.

KL: In the extortion cases, do they target their victims?

PNB: Many of the cases I’ve looked at definitely involved people who did their homework. They targeted specific people in the community who they knew had a specific amount of wealth or standing in the community. Two weeks ago, a prominent member of the Armenian community in Aleppo was traveling from Aleppo to Beirut by bus, and the bus was stopped, and they asked him by name to get off the bus because they knew the Armenian community would pay the ransom.

KL: Who are the kidnappers?

PNB: In most cases, we are talking about criminal gangs who are using weapons that are floating around quite freely in Syria, as well as the chaos that’s reigning in many parts of the country. There are a number of kidnappings that have been carried out by opposition groups looking to fundraise to buy weapons and allow them to continue to fight. In these cases it’s not just kidnappings, it’s also extortion, where people in the community that have wealth are asked to “contribute,” and if they refuse to do so, they are liable to kidnapping.

Some groups have been associated with specific incidents, like the [Free Syrian Army’s] Northern Storm group, implicated in the 2012 kidnapping of a group of Lebanese Shia. One of their members was just photographed with [U.S. Senator John] McCain at the border [during McCain’s May visit to northern Syria], causing a bit of controversy. This was a group of Lebanese Shia that went to Iran for a pilgrimage and were on their way back to Syria when they were kidnapped.

KL: Why are kidnappings on the rise?

PNB: In general, instability is on the rise in Syria, and these kidnappings are part of this instability. Kidnappings are a part of the dangers that civilians in general face in this conflict. In cities like Aleppo, the kidnappings for ransom that are taking place have very significantly undermined support for the opposition. Because in general, civilians are very fearful of these kinds of kidnappings, especially people with wealth. [Bashar al-] Assad’s regime was known for brutality, but this kind of insecurity didn’t exist for wealthy business people. They knew if they stayed out of politics, they could live secure lives.

KL: Have you seen kidnappings among the ever-growing refugee population?

PNB: We haven’t seen a lot of kidnappings out of the camps in Turkey, probably because the population in those camps tends to be almost entirely Sunni, so you don’t have sectarian tensions. We have seen a very sharp rise in the “tit for tat” kidnappings in the Lebanese border region; some Sunni families have kidnapped Shia and Alawites in order to pressure the Syrian government to release their loved ones in Syria. There have been tensions in the neighboring villages of Hermel, which is Shia, and Arsal, which is Sunni, the same place where Lebanese soldiers were ambushed and killed a few days ago.

KL: What’s the ransom range?

PNB: Ransom really depends on the individuals involved. Some kidnappings are for relatively small amounts of money, a few grand, but it can go much higher than that. The kidnappers tend to know the wealth of their victims. They have a pretty good idea of which families are able to pay.

The last case I worked on involved a prominent Aleppo person, and it was for 3 million Syrian pounds [about $31,000]. But there was an international journalist crew kidnapped near the Lebanon border a few months ago. The kidnappers said they would hold them for three months and then ask for $1 million. They managed to escape after 10 days, but it shows you the level of planning that goes into this. It’s a big-money business.

I know [Syrians] who live in the West, in London and other cities, and have relatives in Syria. And every Syrian business family has had relatives kidnapped. So it’s quite common, disturbingly common these days in Syria, and a source of anxiety for people on the ground.

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