Crisis Training

Turning the Tables on the Kidnappers

Next time it could be for real.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    More and more parts of the world are being classified as high-risk. But strong growth and business opportunities in such regions mean more and more expat workers are needed there.

  • Facts


    • Africa has become one of the highest-risk regions, overtaking Latin America.
    • In Africa alone, more than 80 Germans have been kidnapped – and freed – since 2002.
    • Firms such as Results Group train employees from engineers to traders on safety in hostile situations.
  • Audio


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Stefan Seidl zippers his black jacket tightly against the cold in the underground car park. Behind him, the heavy door to the staircase closes. Just 10 meters to the silver Mercedes. Mr. Siedl and his colleague approach it carefully. No signs of danger.

Mr. Seidl sits in the passenger seat, his colleague at the wheel. Suddenly, they notice a shadow on the backseat – but it’s too late. A man points a gun at Mr. Seidl.

Seconds later, the shadowy figure jumps out of the car, laughing. What looked like a kidnapping is actually part of a training course organized for employees by ILF Consulting Engineers, based in Germany and Austria. Fifteen of their staff have learned how to spot dangerous situations more quickly and how to react when things get dicey.

ILF employs 1,900 people worldwide, and many of the positions are in dangerous regions. The engineers support pipeline construction in South Sudan and plan massive cable railroads like the Lagos Cable Car in Nigeria, a country where Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram is active.

“Risks have grown, and have shifted from Latin America to Africa.”

Hans Jürgen Stephan, Control Risks, Germany

Mining and commodities companies in particular often send their employees into crisis regions to stake their claims before the competition. But being first means missions are risky.

That leads to a lot of work for Hans-Jürgen Stephan, Germany chief of the international risk management consultancy Control Risks. His analysts constantly monitor the world’s most volatile and dangerous countries.

They also keep an updated map of world threats. White countries on the map are harmless, dark red ones dangerous. Over the past couple of years, more and more regions have been colored red. “Risks have grown, and have shifted from Latin America to Africa,” said Mr. Stephan.

It’s Mr. Seidl’s job to ensure that ILF’s staff are fully prepared when going abroad. He describes his job as that of a “risk minimizer.”

That means he develops emergency plans to quickly evacuate engineers from countries, should a war or conflict arise.

To do that, Mr. Seidl has to stay on top of things and keep developing his skills. That’s why he opted to be kidnapped today.

Terrorists such as these from the Malian Ansar Dine Islamist movement have made Africa increasingly dangerous. Source: Reuters


It’s also what led Michael Pülmanns to visit ILF’s office in Innsbruck, Austria.

Mr. Pülmanns has 18 years of service in German security agencies under his belt, and has worked in Latin America and the Middle East. Now he’s with Result Group, a company that employs more than 60 former secret service agents and members of the special forces to prepare firms for risks in international crises regions.

In a sober conference room, Mr. Pülmanns outlines threat scenarios for Latin America. Sometimes, he explains, attackers are armed with guns, sometimes with knives, sometimes they’re on drugs and want money.

His advice is to always hand over any valuables immediately, an action that should ensure encounters never last more than five seconds. “After all, your heart rate is at 180, your attacker’s heart rate too. If it takes too long, it becomes more likely that they will lose it and attack,” Mr. Pülmanns said. “You have to train this behavior, so you can activate it in dangerous situations,” he added.

“In the mornings, most of us are running on autopilot. That makes our behavior predictable.”

Michael Pülmanns, Analyst, Result Group

Mr. Pülmanns makes his ILF trainees do role plays. He plays Hector, a driver who wants to pick up a foreign engineer at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria. The engineer has been told to expect a different chauffeur and doesn’t want to get into the car. Hector gets angry and threatens to leave.

Even at the risk of being stuck at the airport for hours waiting for another driver, Mr. Pülmanns said, “you should never get into a car with a stranger in a risk country.”

Next, the expert takes on the role of a Latin American police officer during a traffic check. Very movingly he tells the driver he has a sick daughter who needs expensive medicine. All he needs is $20, a donation that could spare the visitor an inconvenient and time-consuming vehicle search.

To pay or not to pay, that’s the question. It’s a tough one, as Mr. Pülmanns admits. Bribery is a criminal offence. He advises the participants to go with their gut feeling should such a situation arise.

The former agent’s bottom line is simple: the best protection from threats is to prevent threats from arising.

If kidnappers are after business travelers, they usually first monitor the target’s daily routine. People are at their most vulnerable on their way to work in the morning, said Mr. Pülmanns. “Most of us are running on autopilot. That makes our behavior predictable.”

Such warnings meant that one lesson in particular stuck in the minds of the ILF trainees: No matter what, always look on the back seat before getting into a car.


This article first appeared in the German newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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