Staying safe in a dangerous world
Published on: Sunday, October 13, 2019
By: James Sarda
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Kim with her bestsellers.
SOME 40,000 kidnappings take place yearly on average across the globe and there is no telling whether you may the next target, what with the increased connectivity that can land you in places which four or five decades ago would have been out of reach to most travellers.

Former medical journalist KJ Howe decided to bring to the fore a problem that is becoming rampant by delving into the mindset of these kidnappers and warning travellers on ways to stay safe in a world that is becoming more dangerous by the day. 

The results after six years of research has been two books – Freedom Broker and Skywalker – based on real incidents which have become bestsellers as unlike armchair storytellers, she weaves her plots around real incidents. 

“If I can prevent even one kidnapping then it has been worthwhile,” Howe told Daily Express at the Sharjah International Book Fair, in the United Arab Emirates, recently.

Howe is so passionate about the subject that she even provides an advisory map to warn others where not to spend their vacation at

Her books take readers on an adventure to different countries, especially places she had spent time in like Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

“I try to tackle different forms of kidnapping in each novel in different locales,” says Howe, who also plans to write a novel on the kidnappings by the Philippines-based and Islamic State-aligned Abu Sayyaf in Sabah (Malaysia).

She says it is sad that these days there is also a lot of state-sanctioned kidnapping going on which is a very contentious issue. Basically it is political kidnapping, or what is referred to as “tiger kidnapping” where someone is taken captive to change the outcome of an election, for instance. 

Or even a drug company CEO or family being kidnapped to make them give up a formula that is worth millions of dollars or a bank manager or his family to disclose sensitive information.

Hence, kidnapping is a very “passionate-filled crime” and can be used in many different ways as a cruel tool.

Howe said the fact that 40,000 kidnappings were reported across the globe shows the gravity of the problem, although thankfully 90pc of hostages do come home safely.

Howe said kidnapping has over the decades progressed from an activity of desperation to put food on the table to a way of raising funds by terrorists for their organisations.

Between these two things we have seen a surge, she said, adding that in some developing countries, even police and displaced military personnel have turned to kidnapping to put food on the table. 

She cited the Somali pirates who have been trained to carry out kidnapping to make a living because they have great security skills.

What she finds that after the negotiations go back and forth, what the kidnappers usually end up getting is 10-15 per cent of the original asking price.

Nevertheless, she says, it is important to negotiate hard and make the kidnappers think that you have mortgaged your house and emptied your bank account lest you become a repeat victim.

“Or you might have a situation where the kidnappers will say ‘thank you for the down payment, now let’s talk about the ransom.’”

She said the rise in kidnappings has created a new breed of people referred to as “kidnap negotiators”.

Howe says it has been extremely inspirational, in the course of doing her books, to meet especially these negotiators who go undercover and risk their lives to bring the hostages home. With kidnappings on the rise, their job as negotiators is becoming more important.

She advises holidaymakers to travel smart by checking the travel advisories put out about a place, what she calls “situation awareness”.

“Be careful about getting into taxis as they are one of the ways for kidnappers to grab you. You are much better off to arrange for a hotel car. It is also much harder for them to get you if you travel with company than alone. And if you have to travel alone, make sure you talk to your colleagues, spouse or loved ones.”

Howe prefers to write about kidnappings than other topics like murder because “there is always something different and fresh”.

She makes her books come alive by re-enacting the scenes with some of her experts, focusing on the action and reaction. “I go through the motions physically as it makes it more alive and realistic. Because as we move, we can see what is going to happen,” said Howe, who rank James Patterson and Le Child as her favourites where novels are concerned.

Similarly, Filipino writer and filmmaker Alvin Yapan is no stranger to kidnappers like the Abu Sayyaf. In fact having produced a controversial flick on the drug killings under the present Duterte regime, he is hoping to make a movie about the five-month siege of Marawi City in southern Mindanao by jihadists linked to Islamic State-like Abu Sayyaf in 2017.

He said what would make the movie interesting is that it was the first time that terrorists had attempted to establish a foothold on Filipino soil and engaged in combat with government troops for several months with many casualties.

“Besides some of these terrorists belonging to the Maute and Abu Sayyaf comprised both foreigners as well as Filipinos suspected of enjoying dual identities from neighbouring Sabah,” he said.

These groups are active in the Philippines south and have sworn allegiance to Islamic State that is notorious for massacres and beheadings of captives in areas that they control in Iraq and Syria.

IS was hoping to set up a caliphate upholding only its brand of Islam and were controlling large areas in both middle eastern countries until Russia stepped in using ground forces and air power to wipe them out but pockets still remain.

“I will need about 25 to 30 million pesos (US500,000) to produce the film on Marawi. It will have to be a full production and a bit costly because of re-enacting the bombings, location and production design,” he said.

“The Sabah factor and how these foreign jihadists managed to wage war on Filipino soil also gives the story an international flavour,” he said.

One of his films, Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe (The Rapture of Fe), won the Best Digital Feature award at the Cairo International Film Festival recently.

“That was my biggest achievement and it discussed the issue of violence against women in the Philippines. It was shown worldwide.”

Alvin said he manages to complete at least one Tagalog movie every year but funding is a problem. The winning Cairo film was funded by a UN women’s group.

“I mostly depend on grants,” he said, adding he has about 11 films to his credit so far.

They get aired on Netflix and Airflix.

Another of his films, Ang Sayaw (Dance of the two left feet), was picked to represent the Philippines in the Oscars but lacked the funds to mount a campaign in Hollywood.

In 2017, he ran into problems with the Duterte government and received death threats for making a movie about the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects.

“Because of this, I became a very controversial figure in my country. The problem is your personal security when you deal with sensitive issues and your work goes out into the public space.

“I stopped because it was not worth my life.”

He said he decided to do the film because the families of a group of minors who were massacred at gunpoint approached him.

“There was a news blackout on the incident and they wanted the country to know what happened to these kids. They were crying and begging me to make their stories heard,” he said.

When it was shown last year in the biggest film festival in the country many people watched it and became a problem. “It was pulled out of the cinema after three days,” said Alvin. 

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