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Stupid, but Lucky – Part Four: How Not to get Kidnapped

In the past sixteen years more than 90 Westerners have been kidnapped in the Sahara. I do not want to add to that number.

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View West Africa on askgudmundsen's travel map.

Map of Sahara kidnappings. Source: Sahara-Overland.com

Map of Sahara kidnappings. Source: Sahara-Overland.com

The aim of this blog post is not to frighten anybody. Nonetheless, kidnapping is a frightening topic to discuss and to write about. Yet, I would argue that it is also a necessary topic when travelling certain parts of the world. Hell, when I choose to go where I am going, not looking into this stuff would make going here twice as stupid. Simply because kidnapping is going to be the most serious threat to me in particular parts of West Africa. In particular Mali, Niger and, less so, in Mauritania and Burkina. But is this not just paranoia, you ask? Let us go through the numbers:
Since 2003, 95 Westerners have been kidnapped in 28 kidnapping incidents across North Africa (see map) and most of these kidnappings have been in the Sahel area. Sahara-Overland has a detailed page if you are interested, but the outcomes are as follows: 49 hostages have been ransomed. 18 were freed in army raids while four have died in failed raids. Two have been released voluntarily by their captors; six have been executed by them and four have died in captivity, usually due to health issues. 12 are still held by their kidnappers.
So, what is the good news? Most victims have either been living permanently in the region or have been part of larger organised tours. Out of those 95, only 15 were travelling independently and only three of these were not ‘overlanders’, driving their own vehicles. So I am not exactly part of the main target group. Further, no tourists have been kidnapped since 2014 in the entire Sahara. Then again, this might just be because fewer people visit the area due to the risk of being kidnapped…

Source: The New York Times

Source: The New York Times

The other sort-of-good news is that most hostages are being held for ransom and that the kidnappers are becoming excellent at keeping their hostages alive. To the point where a Frenchwoman with cancer received her medication even though she was held captive in the middle of the Sahara. Danes are not targeted either. This is because the kidnappers are well aware that individual governments, in particular, the German, Austrian, French, Swiss, Spanish and Italian governments, are willing to pay ransoms. Kidnappers, therefore, target nationals from these countries. The governments of cause deny paying any ransoms. Instead, the payments are handled by ‘third parties’. Ransom payments then appear as “development assistance” in the national budgets. The “bad news” here is that no Danes have been kidnapped in the Sahara prior to my trip and I have not been able to figure out how Danes have been released elsewhere in the World. So I do not know how the Danish government would position itself in the hypothetical case that I would need a ransom. Though I do fear, they are on board with the American and British ditto, who do not pay ransom. This, put bluntly, means that I have less of a risk of being kidnapped, but a higher risk getting executed should it actually happen. So that should probably be the first lesson: Know who is the target group, and the do not be part of it.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

The second lesson would be to realise that the kidnappings are rarely spontaneous. By now they are most often planned, and well planned too. The perpetrators need a getaway route, a car and a hiding-place for the first few days. In most cases kidnappings last months, requiring, even more, preperation. The groups in the Sahara are indeed getting more professional, but even they need a few days to figure out your nationality. That means it is possible to take a few precautions. Not staying in the same hotel for more than a couple of nights goes a long way. So does mixing up your daily routines; taking different routes from, say, your hotel to the market; eating at a new place for every meal; avoiding empty streets, and not going out at night. These precautions should be taking when travelling in areas where kidnapping risks are high. Lastly, avoiding public transportation might be a good idea for certain trips. The alternative here is to get your hotel or local authorities to recommend you a reliable driver who can ferry you safely across rural areas where the government have less control.

Me and my reliable driver, Afghanistan

Me and my reliable driver, Afghanistan

Finally, anyone contemplating going to an area where there is a risk of kidnapping need to understand the mental dilemma this brings. I would not travel here if I were not ready to face the risk – nor should anybody else. However, this is a very selfish position to take. Just like suicide is a selfish act. My death or kidnapping will affect my friends and family far greater than it would affect me, and they had no chance to influence my decision about going here. Death is certain for all of us and once we are dead – like before we were born – we will not be around to worry about the fact that we are not alive. All the pain and suffering are left for those we leave behind.
But how great is the danger really? In 2012 10.000 people visited Mali (down from 200.000 in 2011). Out or those 210.000 visitors seven got kidnapped. So the risk is limited. Of the 10.000 people visiting Mali in 2012, just one got kidnapped. The other Mali-kidnapping in 2012 was a missionary living permanently in the country. And all eight people kidnapped got kidnapped in parts of Mali I do not plan to visit. In other words: I am still far more likely to lose my lift to the crazy traffic down here than to any terrorist attack or kidnapping. Not that I plan to get killed in any specific way down here – but if I go, I would rather do it while doing travelling – something that I love – than in a traffic accident back home in Copenhagen.

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And after all that uncomfortable and depressing reading we should probably end on a higher note. So here is a quote from Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life:

For life is quite absurd, and death's the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin
Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.

So always look on the bright side of death...
a-Just before you draw your terminal breath...

Life's a piece of shit, when you look at it
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see its all a show, keep 'em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

Always look on the bright side of life...

Posted by askgudmundsen 05:16 Archived in Morocco Tagged travel tourist sahara mali danger niger west_africa mauritania kidnapping terrorists al-qaeda sahel burkina_faso

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Thank you for this...made me a little more comfortable about my upcoming (and first) trip to West Africa. Many thanks!

by rdub

I've been here for six months now, and while I haven't been to Mali yet, reports from other travellers tell about southern Mali being perfectly safe :-)
Enjoy your trip!

by askgudmundsen

Ooooh, I have a lot of reading to do! I assume everything is on this blog/website? Sorry, just found this page today while searching "how to avoid kidnapping."

by rdub

Everything should be here... But If you have any specific questions, don't hesitate to ask them!

by askgudmundsen

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