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The Kaspersky Kidnapping - Lessons Learned

Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 03:50 Print Text Size

By Scott Stewart

On April 24, officers from the anti-kidnapping unit of Moscow's Criminal Investigation Department and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) rescued 20-year-old Ivan Kaspersky from a dacha in Sergiev Posad, a small town about 65 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of Moscow. Kaspersky, the son of Russian computer software services billionaire Eugene Kaspersky (founder of Kaspersky Lab), was kidnapped April 19 as he was walking to work from his Moscow apartment. A fourth-year computer student at Moscow State University, Kaspersky was working as an intern at a software company located near Moscow's Strogino metro station.

Following the abduction, Kaspersky was reportedly forced to call his father and relay his captors' demands for a ransom of 3 million euros ($4.4 million). After receiving the ransom call, the elder Kaspersky turned to Russian law enforcement for assistance. On April 21, news of the abduction hit the Russian and international press, placing pressure on the kidnappers and potentially placing Kaspersky's life in jeopardy. In order to defuse the situation, disinformation was leaked to the press that a ransom had been paid, that Kaspersky had been released unharmed and that the family did not want the authorities involved. Kaspersky's father also contacted the kidnappers and agreed to pay the ransom. Responding to the ruse, four of the five members of the kidnapping gang left the dacha where Kaspersky was being held to retrieve the ransom and were intercepted by Russian authorities as they left. The authorities then stormed the dacha, arrested the remaining captor and released Kaspersky. The five kidnappers remain in custody and are awaiting trial.

According to Russia's RT television network, Russian officials indicated that the kidnapping was orchestrated by an older couple who were in debt and sought to use the ransom to get out of their financial difficulties. The couple reportedly enlisted their 30-year-old son and two of his friends to act as muscle for the plot. Fortunately for Kaspersky, the group that abducted him was quite unprofessional and the place where he was being held was identified by the cellphone used to contact Kaspersky's father. Reports conflict as to whether the cellphone's location was tracked by the FSB, the police anti-kidnapping unit or someone else working for Kaspersky's father, but in any case, in the end the group's inexperience and naivete allowed for Kaspersky's story to have a happy ending.

However, the story also demonstrates that even amateurs can successfully locate and abduct the son of a billionaire, and some very important lessons can be drawn from this case.

The Abduction

According to the Russian news service RIA Novosti, Kaspersky's abductors had been stalking him and his girlfriend for several months prior to the kidnapping. This pre-operational surveillance permitted the kidnappers to determine Kaspersky's behavioral patterns and learn that he did not have any sort of security detail protecting him. Media reports also indicate that the kidnappers were apparently able to obtain all the information they required to begin their physical surveillance of the victim from information Kaspersky himself had posted on Vkontakte.ru, a Russian social networking site. According to RT, Kaspersky's Vkontakte profile contained information such as his true name, his photo, where he was attending school, what he was studying, who he was dating, where he was working for his internship and even the addresses of the last two apartments where he lived.

Armed with this cornucopia of information, it would be very easy for the criminals to establish physical surveillance of Kaspersky in order to gather the additional behavioral information they needed to complete their plan for the abduction. Kaspersky also appears to have not been practicing the level of situational awareness required to detect the surveillance being conducted against him — even though it was being conducted by amateurish criminals who were undoubtedly clumsy in their surveillance tradecraft. This lack of awareness allowed the kidnappers to freely follow him and plot his abduction without fear of detection. Kaspersky made himself an easy target in a dangerous place for high net worth individuals and their families. While kidnapping for ransom is fairly rare in the United States, Russian law enforcement sources report that some 300 people are kidnapped for ransom every year in Russia.

Denial

In terms of being an easy target, Kaspersky was not alone. It is not uncommon for the children of high net worth families to want to break free of their family's protective cocoon and "live like a regular person." This means going to school, working, dating and living without being insulated from the world by the security measures in place around their parents and their childhood homes. This tendency was exemplified by the well-publicized example of George W. Bush's twin daughters "ditching" their Secret Service security details so they could go out and party with their friends when they were in college.

Having personally worked as a member of an executive protection detail responsible for the security of a high net worth family, I have seen firsthand how cumbersome and limiting an executive protection detail can be — especially a traditional, overt-security detail. A low-key, "bubble-type" detail, which focuses on surveillance detection and protective intelligence, provides some space and freedom, but it, too, can be quite limiting and intrusive — especially for a young person who wants some freedom to live spontaneously. Because of the very nature of protective security, there will inevitably be a degree of tension between personal security and personal freedom.

However, when reacting to this tension, those protected must remember that there are very real dangers in the world — dangers that must be guarded against. Unfortunately, many people who reject security measures tend to live in a state of denial regarding the potential threats facing them, and that denial can land them in trouble. We have seen this mindset most strongly displayed in high net worth individuals who have recently acquired their wealth and have not yet been victimized by criminals. A prime example of this was U.S. billionaire Eddie Lampert, who at the time of his abduction in 2003 did not believe there was any threat to his personal security. His first encounter with criminals was a traumatic kidnapping at gunpoint. But this mindset can also appear in younger members of well-established families of means who have not personally been victimized by criminals.

It is important to realize, however, that the choice between security and freedom does not have to be an either/or equation. There are measures that can be taken to protect high net worth individuals and children without employing a full protective security detail. These same measures can also be applied by people of more modest means living in places such as Mexico or Venezuela, where the kidnapping threat is pervasive and extends to almost every strata of society, from middle-class professionals and business owners to farmers.

In this type of environment, the threat also applies to mid-level corporate employees who serve tours as expatriate executives in foreign cities. Some of the cities they are posted in are among the most crime-ridden in the world, including such places as Mexico City, Caracas, Sao Paulo and Moscow. When placed in the middle of an impoverished society, even a mid-level executive or diplomat is, by comparison, incredibly rich. As a result, employees who would spend their lives under the radar of professional criminals back home in the United States, Canada or Europe can become prime targets for kidnapping, home invasion, burglary and carjacking in their overseas posts.

The Basics

Before anything else can be done to address the criminal threat, like any other issue, the fact that there is indeed a threat must first be recognized and acknowledged. As long as a potential target is in a state of denial, very little can be done to protect him or her.

Once the threat is recognized, the next step in devising a personal protection system is creating a realistic baseline assessment of the threat — and exposure to that threat. This assessment should start with some general research on crime and statistics for the area where the person lives, works or goes to school, and the travel corridors between these places. The potential for natural disasters, civil unrest — and in some cases the possibility of terrorism or even war — should also be considered. Based on this general crime-environment assessment, it might be determined that the kidnapping risk in a city such as Mexico City or Moscow will dictate that a child who has a desire to attend university without a protective security detail might be better off doing so in a safer environment abroad.

Building on these generalities, then, the next step should be to determine the specific threats and vulnerabilities by performing some basic analyses and diagnostics. In some cases, these will have to be performed by professionals, but they can also be undertaken by the individuals themselves if they lack the means to hire professional help. These analyses should include:

  • In-depth cyberstalking report. Most of the people for whom we have conducted such reports have been shocked to see how much private information analysts are able to dig up on the Internet. This information is available for free (or for a few dollars) to anyone, including criminals, who might be targeting people for kidnapping, extortion or other crimes. The problem of personal information being available on the Internet is magnified when potential targets gratuitously post personal information online, as in the Kaspersky case. Even in cases where personal information is available only to online "friends," it is quite easy for savvy Internet users to use a false social networking account with an attractive photo to social engineer their way into a circle of friends using common pretexting tactics. Therefore, potential targets need to be extremely careful what they post online, and they also must be aware of what information about them is publicly available on the Internet and how that information may make them vulnerable to being targeted. If it is determined that the information available makes them too vulnerable, changes may have to be made.
  • Baseline surveillance diagnostics. Surveillance diagnostics is a blend of surveillance-detection techniques that are designed to determine if an individual is under systematic criminal surveillance. This can be conducted by the potential targets themselves, if they receive the necessary training, or by a specialized professional surveillance-detection team. As the name suggests, this diagnostic level helps establish a baseline from which to plan future security and surveillance-detection operations.
  • Route analysis. This type of analysis examines the regular travel routes of a potential target in order to identify locations such as choke points that can be used by criminals for surveillance or to conduct an attack. Route analysis can be performed by the same team that conducts surveillance diagnostics, or even by a potential target if the person will thoughtfully examine his or her daily travel routes. Such an analysis allows the potential target to be cognizant of such locations and of the need to increase situational awareness for signs of surveillance or a potential attack as he or she passes through them, especially during a highly predictable move like the morning home-to-work commute.
  • Physical security surveys. Such surveys are performed for the home, workplace or school of the potential target. While individuals can effectively conduct such surveys using common sense, a professional assessment can be useful and will often be performed for free by alarm companies. Obviously, any security upgrades required at a workplace or school will require coordination with the security managers for these locations.
  • Response capability assessment. This is a realistic assessment of the capabilities and responsiveness of the local police and security forces as well as fire and medical first-responders. In some places, security personnel themselves may be involved in criminal activity, or prove to be generally unresponsive or incompetent. Knowing their true capabilities is necessary to create a realistic security plan.

There are some very good private training facilities that can provide individuals with training in things like attack recognition/avoidance, surveillance detection and route analysis as well hands-on skills like tactical driving.

Guns Alone Are Not the Answer

Even if a potential target is being afforded a protection detail, it must be remembered that guards with guns are not in and of themselves a guarantee of security. If a group is brazen enough to undertake a kidnapping, they will in many cases and many places not hesitate to use deadly force in the commission of their crime. If they are given free rein to conduct pre-operational surveillance, they will be able to make plans to overcome any security measures in place, including the neutralizing of armed security personnel.

After recognizing that a threat indeed exists, the next key concept that potential targets need to internalize is that criminals are vulnerable to detection as they plan their crimes, and that ordinary people can develop the skills required to detect criminal activity and take measures to avoid being victimized. The fact is, most criminals practice terrible surveillance tradecraft. They are permitted to succeed in spite of their lack of skill because, for the most part, people simply do not practice good situational awareness.

The good news for potential targets is that being aware of one's surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations is more a mindset or attitude than a hard skill. Because of this, situational awareness is not something that can be practiced only by highly trained government agents or specialized surveillance detection teams — it is something that can be practiced by anyone with the will and the discipline to do so. In the Kaspersky case, it is very likely that had the young man been practicing good situational awareness, he would have been able to note the criminals conducting surveillance on him and to take appropriate action to avoid being kidnapped.

Armed guards, armored vehicles and other forms of physical security are all valuable protective tools, but they can all be defeated by kidnappers who are allowed to form a plan and execute it at the time and place of their choosing. Clearly, a way is needed to deny kidnappers the advantage of striking when and where they choose or, even better, to stop a kidnapping before it can be launched. This is where the intelligence tools outlined above come into play. They permit the potential target, and any security officers working to protect them, to play on the action side of the action/reaction equation rather than passively waiting for something to happen.

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