posted on 01 September 2016
India is consistently ranked among the countries with the highest kidnapping risk, a lesson Ishaan Bapat learned firsthand. On his way home from his private university in Bangalore on Aug. 23, the 19-year-old was grabbed by two men and bundled into a car while waiting for a bus at a cafe. Bapat usually made the 19-kilometers (12-mile) commute by motorbike, but because his bike was in the shop, he took a bus and decided to grab a bite to eat during a transfer. Within a few hours of abducting him, Bapat's kidnappers used his phone to contact his parents.
Despite the assailants' warnings, Bapat's parents opted to call the police, who responded quickly and comprehensively, dispatching 30 officers across the city to look for him. By 9 the next morning, Bapat's kidnappers had dropped him off about 8 kilometers from his residence in central Bangalore, leaving him to catch a cab home.
Though it ended better than most, Bapat's story is all too familiar in India, which has a reported kidnapping rate of 6.6 per 100,000 people (a figure that could well be higher since kidnappings often go unreported). But his case provides a useful study in kidnapping - and how to avoid it.
Making a Kidnapping
In a kidnapping, a victim's socio-economic privilege can be a double-edged sword. Bapat is a student at a private college that charges an annual tuition well above the yearly income of an average Indian family. His father is an executive at an electronics firm in the area with reported revenues of $80 million in 2015. Though these factors likely influenced the robust police response to Bapat's kidnapping, they may also have made him more susceptible to attack in the first place. Police have not yet determined the intent behind the kidnapping, but they suspect that the crime was financially motivated. Given the status of Bapat's father, investigators are exploring personal or business rivalries as possible motives as well. These kinds of kidnappings are fairly common in India and often ensnare targets' family members.
Adjusting one's personal routine can often help to thwart attacks. In Bapat's case, however, taking a different route - by way of a different mode of transportation - may have increased his risk of kidnapping. Compared with the motorbike he typically rode to and from campus, a bus made him more vulnerable to attack, especially during transfers. Moreover, because the employees of the repair shop where Bapat took his motorbike would have known that he was without his normal means of transportation, they could have staged the operation or abetted its perpetrators. Such painstaking orchestration would not be unusual in India. In February, for instance, a man with a long criminal record pulled off an elaborate plan, which he had spent months concocting, to abduct and then rescue a female e-commerce executive in Ghaziabad, near New Delhi. After his arrest, the suspect told police that he had been inspired by the plot of a popular Bollywood movie. In investigating Bapat's kidnapping, police will probably scrutinize the repair shop to determine whether its staff was involved.
Less Experience, Greater Risk
Nonetheless, the evidence so far suggests that Bapat was more likely the victim of an opportunistic kidnapping conducted by amateurs. Since Bapat was taking an unusual route home, he may not have been familiar with the cafe he patronized on the way home or its clientele. His clothing, accessories or speech pattern could have given him away as a man of some means to local thugs looking for an easy target. His attackers may have decided to strike just in the time it took him to place his order; after all, the pre-operational surveillance phase of the criminal attack cycle can sometimes take only a matter of seconds.
Once they had their victim, the kidnappers revealed their inexperience. Amateur kidnappers typically devote more planning to taking the victim than to leveraging him or her for ransom. Calling the family from the victim's phone within a few hours of his abduction suggests that neophytes carried out the operation with little forethought. More experienced criminals would have secured and concealed Bapat's location before starting the negotiations for his release. In fact, professional kidnappers often postpone contacting family members to increase their anxiety and make them more inclined to meet ransom demands. A professional gang also would not have been so easily put off by police pursuit, having considered that risk ahead of time.
Though Bapat's experience must have been harrowing, he was relatively lucky. Botched kidnappings do not always end as well as his did, especially when conducted by amateurs. In a high-stress situation, such as a kidnapping-for-ransom operation, assailants' behavior can be difficult to assess or anticipate. The day before Bapat's nabbing in Bangalore, for example, a kidnapper near Agra abducted his friend in a ploy to collect a ransom to pay off business debts. As the plot unraveled, the kidnapper strangled his friend and tried to hide the body to escape arrest (but police eventually caught up with him). In many ways, dealing with professional kidnappers is preferable, since they typically stick to carefully considered plans, avoid risks and follow more predictable practices.
Despite the high incidence of kidnappings in India, it is possible to mitigate the risk of abduction. Identifying choke points and other areas of vulnerability in one's daily routines can help focus attention on surveillance and other unusual activity or flag places to avoid altogether. Still, as Bapat's case illustrates, deviating from routine entails its own dangers, exposing people to unfamiliar areas and unknown threats. Furthermore, though varying daily habits can be an effective deterrent against advanced, professional plots, it is less effective against opportunistic threats. For that reason, it is important, as always, to maintain situational awareness. Hostile surveillance can take many forms, from a suspicious person parked across the street to a group of youths watching intently by the snack stand. Each is equally important to detect and act upon if necessary.
Finally, keeping friends and family apprised of any threats that could also involve them can help avoid situations such as the one Bapat endured. Especially in a place like India, where business disputes or debts can escalate to criminal abduction, it is important to recognize when a bad business deal might jeopardize the safety of extended family. In addition, families that enjoy higher living standards should be mindful that certain behaviors - for instance, sending their children to private schools or driving nice cars - may attract the interest of kidnappers or other criminals looking for cash.
"Lessons From a Bangalore Kidnapping" is republished with permission of Stratfor.
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