Comment

Speedy resolution to kidnapping of Ken and Jocelyn Elliott unlikely

There are an estimated 5000 Australians working in north and west Africa, mainly in mining and oil. The number is not certain because many of them are working there unofficially to avoid paying Australian tax. It was therefore only a matter of time before an Australian was taken hostage by Islamist extremists. The surprising aspect of the kidnapping of Ken Elliott and his wife Jocelyn was that neither work in those industries. The Elliotts, both in their 80, run a a medical clinic at Djibo, in the remote north of Burkina Faso. They were apparently kidnapped on January 15 by an Islamist extremist group from across the border in Mali.

Ken Elliott is 'part of our community'

The community of Djibo in Western Africa's Burkina Faso are shocked by the abduction of their Australian doctor Ken Elliot, says former resident Dicko Seydou.

It's expected the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Australian Federal Police will work with local authorities in Mali and Burkina Faso to determine who the kidnappers are and what they want. In some past cases where petty criminal groups were involved, or the kidnappers' purpose was to put pressure on local government to construct a well, etc, hostage situations were fairly easily resolved. In the case of a politically motivated kidnap-for-ransom, it becomes much more difficult because the hostage-taking group is intent on getting as much money as it can, no matter how long it takes.

Australia's policy, like that of Britain and the United States, is not to pay ransoms. This is logical because once a country pays a ransom it is seen as a soft touch for future demands. It also makes the nationals of that country preferred targets for kidnapping.

Dr Ken Elliott in his Dijbo surgery.
Dr Ken Elliott in his Dijbo surgery. Photo: Centre Medico-Chirurgicale de Djibo

In the case of hostages from countries that do not pay ransoms – other than by family members, the hostage-takers' demands are often more modest, usually around $1 million, negotiable. This may seem a lot, but people in impoverished parts of the world think all Westerners are wealthy.

Because of our national no-payment policy, once Australian agencies have established it is a serious kidnapping by an insurgent or terrorist group, it is better for them to disengage from any contact with the hostage-takers and hand over negotiation to an experienced private security organisation that can act as a go-between for the family and the hostage-takers (DFAT and the AFP do, of course, continue to provide valuable support in other ways). Unlike the US, Australia has little capacity to resolve overseas hostage situations by force.

I am involved with Hostage UK which was co-founded by my friend and former Lebanon hostage Terry Waite to support hostages and their families. Its aim is to ensure that anyone going through a kidnap has access to any specialist care and support they need free of charge. Delivered independently of any outside interests, its team includes psychologists, psychiatrists, lawyers, financial advisors and communications experts, who give their time free of charge.

Hostage UK works in liaison with the Metropolitan Police and can recommend negotiators to families relevant to where it is in the world and which group is holding the hostage(s). Hostage UK is currently helping set up a US equivalent.

Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan, who was a hostage in Somalia in 2008-09, claimed that his kidnapping should have been resolvable in a matter of months. Instead it took 15 months because of AFP involvement in the negotiation process – the AFP could offer nothing that the hostage-takers wanted, and was not reliably contactable anyway. On one occasion after a hiatus in negotiations, the hostage-takers called the AFP on a contact number they had been given in Canberra, but it was a long weekend and the AFP phone was not manned at the time. Brennan was eventually released after his family paid $1 million with financial assistance from businessman Dick Smith and Senator Bob Brown.

In the case of Australian Warren Rodwell, who was wounded and kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines in December 2011, negotiations started at a million dollars but he was eventually released in March 2013 on payment of $A94,000. His declining health decided the kidnappers to take what they could get for him, as a dead hostage was not going to be worth much. In that case the AFP helped to ensure the family's ransom payment went to an honest broker. (In a 1994 hostage case involving Australian David Wilson, the family's ransom money was stolen and the hostages killed.)

The Elliotts are committed Christian missionaries who have optimistically relied on God and local support to keep them safe. This, of course, means nothing to Islamist extremists from across the border in Mali who simply regard them as Christian infidels, potentially worth a small fortune.

It is not clear at the moment which group is holding the Elliotts. The Islamist group Ansar Dine, which is the dominant extremist group in northern Mali, says they are being held by "Emirate of the Sahara". This is an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) linked group led by Algerian Abu Yahya al Hammam that has a long history of taking hostages in the Sahara and Sahel. It has been holding Swede Johan Gustofsson and South African Stephen McGowan since November 2011. The two were kidnapped along with Dutch citizen Sjaak Rijke, who was freed in April 2015 by French Special Forces. AQIM is said to have raised $US50 million ($73 million) through kidnap-for-ransom over the past decade.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar's​ al-Mourabitoun group based in southern Algeria is part of AQIM, but has its own regional agenda and in the past has executed hostages. In July 2012, one faction of the group traded two Spaniards and an Italian for $US18 million and a prisoner swap. In April 2015 al-Mourabitoun kidnapped a Romanian security officer from a mine in northern Burkina Faso; he is believed to be held in northern Mali. Al-Mourabitoun claims to be responsible for the attack on the Splendid Hotel in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou​ on January 15 resulting in 29 deaths.

While we can hope for a speedy outcome of the Elliott case, chances are that it could be protracted as long as their health holds out. Assuming it is a kidnap for ransom, their family might also have difficulty in raising sufficient money to gain their release. The Elliotts' long experience of local conditions and Ken Elliott being a doctor might help to maintain their health; he should also be useful to his captors in dealing with local health issues and battle casualties.

Clive Williams is an adjunct professor at Macquarie University's Department of Security Studies and Criminology, and an honorary professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law.