Today's kidnappers are in it for the money

Hostage-takers like those in Philippines act more for financial than political gain.

The kidnapping of three Americans in the Philippines, and the apparent murder of one, is a warning to American tourists planning to go abroad this summer for vacation. The advice: Be careful where you go.

While most of the globe is perfectly safe, travelers would be wise to consider staying away from the few nations where abduction is a serious threat.

The latest kidnappings also reveal the shifting motivations of some extremist groups today. Instead of trying to make a political statement, many are simply out for the money.

"There are pockets in the world where hostage-taking has become almost a business as well as a political statement," says Mitchell Hammer, a terrorism expert at American University here.

Hostages are seized. Ransom is demanded and paid, and the hostages are usually released. Then others are taken and the cycle repeats.

It is a kidnapping pattern apparently under way in the Philippines, although the government in Manila has said that in the instance of the three Americans captured by rebels on May 27, it will not provide ransom.

While kidnappings like these - wherever they occur - frequently capture headlines, the total number of incidents has not risen appreciably in recent years. "Globally, it has not increased," says Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

The current on-the-ground kidnappings are quite different from the hijacking of passenger-filled aircraft a few decades ago. Then, seizing planes was done largely to make a political statement - to the world or an individual country.

Often, too, the hijackers would demand that some prisoners be released. Today's abductions are more about robbery.

Terrorism, of whatever kind, tends to increase in individual nations as tensions rise, and fall when they ebb. "It's an up-and-down situation," says Mary-Jane Deeb, an Arab specialist with the Library of Congress and international relations professor at American University.

At present, some 70 percent of the world's kidnapping, Mr. Hammer says, occurs in three South American nations that are undergoing various kinds of tensions - Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. Together, they comprise one of the "pockets" he cautions would-be tourists about.

The Philippines is another nation where the threat of kidnapping Americans is strong, "particularly in the resort areas just outside Manila," says Hammer.

US tourists may also wish to skirt Yemen, where Western "hostages are taken regularly," Deeb says, "usually for money."

Kidnapping there "has been almost like a traditional sport," says Marina Ottaway, "to see if you can capture" a Westerner. She is an Africa specialist at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace.

War-riven Chechnya - an unlikely destination for American tourists now - is another hot spot.

By contrast, some areas of the world where it was risky for Americans to travel not long ago, are generally safe now.

One is the Middle East, where long-running hostage situations in Iran and Lebanon once mesmerized Americans. In terms of kidnapping, "by and large it is safe for US citizens to travel in the Middle East and the Gulf" now, says Deeb, excepting only Yemen.

Thousands of Americans live and work in Arab nations today, and move freely without fear of kidnapping. There is, of course, a high level of tension near Arab-Israeli borders, and the threat exists of Americans being caught in other forms of violent terrorism that recently have been exploding in the area.

As for the African continent, American tourists are safe from kidnapping, Ottaway says, in most areas they usually go - game parks, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa: "These have been extremely safe."

Still, relief workers, who plunge into unstable areas of Africa, "are at risk, but they know it going in," she says. In recent years, workers in humanitarian organizations have been kidnapped in several parts of Africa: Somalia, the eastern Congo, Angola. Most have been released.

Overall, "the possibility of kidnapping with Americans abroad is very, very low," says Hammer. "But I would caution them to be very, very careful" in hot spots.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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