By Scott Stewart
At 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 13, a girl named Anneli-Marie left her home in Meissen, a picturesque town that straddles the Elbe River just outside of Dresden, Germany. The 17-year-old, who reports refer to only as Anneli-Marie R. because of German privacy laws, was the daughter of a wealthy German industrialist. As she left her home, she took her bike to give her beloved dog some evening exercise, as she often did. But that evening, she never returned. Anneli-Marie was abducted shortly after she left her home. Half an hour after the abduction, her parents received a call from the girl's cell phone telling them she had been kidnapped and demanding a 1 million-euro (1.14 million-dollar) ransom. During the call, Anneli-Marie's father could hear her screaming for help in the background — the last proof of life the family received. After the call, her father conducted a frantic search of the neighborhood and found her bicycle and dog abandoned at the abduction site.
The kidnappers called the parents a second time on Aug. 14, demanding the ransom money be wired to a particular foreign bank account by a specified deadline. When the parents could not complete the transaction before the deadline, the kidnappers broke contact. German police later noted that the transaction simply could not have been conducted in the limited time demanded by the kidnappers.
Once the kidnappers broke off contact, the family went public with the kidnapping, announcing in a statement that they would pay the ransom and pleading with the kidnappers not to harm their daughter. However, authorities believe that by the time news of the kidnapping became public, the girl was already dead, and that the kidnappers killed her to avoid being identified and arrested.
Following several tips received from the public, and reportedly aided by the discovery of DNA evidence on the girl's abandoned bicycle, German police arrested two suspects the morning of Aug. 17. The press identified the suspects as Markus B., a 39-year-old unemployed cook, and Norbert K., a 61-year-old precious metals dealer.
On Aug. 17, Anneli-Marie's body was discovered on a farm near the village of Lampersdorf, some 37 kilometers (about 23 miles) from Meissen. She had been strangled with her own belt and buried in a shallow grave. Markus B. is reportedly the son-in-law of the couple that owns the farm and reportedly told police where the body was buried during interrogation.
Investigators have told the press that the kidnappers targeted Anneli-Marie after identifying her on Facebook and using information they obtained there to begin physical surveillance on her. Markus B. conducted the physical surveillance, reportedly by taking his dog for walks in the family's neighborhood to establish the girl's routine. This surveillance provided the suspects with enough intelligence to plan the kidnapping.
This tragic story demonstrates that even amateur criminals can successfully locate and abduct the daughter of a high-net-worth family. It also offers some very important lessons.
The Danger of Amateurs
First, this case illustrates the danger of dealing with amateur kidnapping groups. In some cases, kidnappers' lack of professionalism can aid the victim, causing them to bungle the abduction or abort the kidnapping. Such was the case in the June 2015 kidnapping of Markus Wurth, the mentally disabled son of German billionaire Reinhold Wurth. Markus was released unharmed after the kidnapping became public; he was left chained to a tree in the forest near Wurzburg, Germany. As an aside, Markus B. owned a home in Bamberg, which is not far from Wurzburg, and it will be interesting to see if the police are able to tie him to the Wurth case. In another notable case that ended well, amateur kidnappers became jittery and decided to let investment banker Edward Lampert go after kidnapping him in 2003.
However, in other cases, mistakes made by amateur kidnappers can prove deadly, such as the 1992 kidnapping of Exxon executive Sidney Reso, or this case involving Anneli-Marie. My friends who are hostage negotiators tell me that they get a sense of relief when they learn that the kidnappers they are talking to are professionals who have a history of releasing hostages after the payment of a ransom. Such abductors know how things work and generally keep the hostages healthy. Professionals would not make the sort of unreasonable demands Anneli-Marie's abductors did. They would know in advance the procedures and time frame for the money transfer they wanted and would set their demands accordingly.
The problem is that even an amateur group can kidnap a high-net-worth individual like Reso and Lampert, or a child like Anneli-Marie, when such individuals are vulnerable soft targets.
Privacy in the Internet Age
It is still unclear exactly how Anneli-Marie's abductors initially became focused on her as a potential target and began cyberstalking her. But initial reports suggest that she was quite open and posted a lot of personal information on Facebook that the men used to help select her as a target.
Anneli-Marie is not alone in this regard. My team has conducted a large number of cyberstalker operations for high-net-worth families to demonstrate what information a hostile actor could find about the family simply using the Internet. Most of the people for whom we have conducted such reports have been shocked to see how much private information we have been able to find and assemble into a dossier. 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. Granted, we are trained analysts and investigators, but in most cases it does not take a high degree of training to find sufficient information to begin physical surveillance on a potential target.
The problem of personal information being available on the Internet is magnified when potential targets gratuitously post this kind of information online and take no effort to protect it. 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, or to hack the passwords of accounts belonging to the target or friends. (This tactic has been used repeatedly to obtain compromising photographs of celebrities.) Therefore, potential targets need to be extremely careful what they post online, use robust passwords and be careful whom they connect with.
It is also important for people to be aware of what information about them is publicly available on the Internet, how that information may make them vulnerable to being targeted and what type of information should be protected. If it is determined that the information available makes them too vulnerable, changes in activities and routines may have to be made, or protective security measures may need to be put into place.
The Trap of Denial
Awareness of potential threats and of vulnerability to these threats is crucial because it can help allay the deadly trap of denial: "This can't happen to my family or me." Denial causes people to be careless with personal information and reject putting information and physical security measures into place. Typically, denial is 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 is Lampert, the investment banker mentioned above. At the time of his abduction in 2003, Lampert did not believe there was any threat to his personal security despite his wealth. His first encounter with criminals was a traumatic kidnapping at gunpoint. But this mindset can also appear in younger members of high-net-worth families who have not been personally victimized by criminals. It is not uncommon for the children of prominent 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.
Having 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. But even a low-key, "bubble-type" detail, which focuses on surveillance detection and protective intelligence and provides some space and freedom, can feel quite intrusive, especially for a young person who wants the freedom to live spontaneously. Because of the very nature of protective security, there inevitably will be a degree of tension between personal security and personal freedom.
It is important to realize, however, that the choice between security and freedom does not have to be an either/or decision. Measures 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 all strata of society, from middle-class professionals and business owners to farmers.
In this type of environment, the kidnapping threat also applies to mid-level corporate employees who work as diplomats or expatriate executives in foreign cities. Some of the cities they are posted in are among the most crime-ridden in the world, including Lagos, Sao Paulo, Manila and Cape Town. 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 and other crimes overseas.
Abating the Threat
A comprehensive cyberstalker report can help identify what information is available via the Internet. A cyberstalker report does not have to be conducted by a professional firm like Stratfor; anyone can conduct a cyberstalker operation on himself or herself and family members. It may not be as thorough an operation as one we would do, but it will still be useful.
Additional measures can help mitigate the risk of kidnapping. Diagnostic surveillance detection will help determine if a person or facility is under surveillance. A route and schedule analysis (often used in conjunction with diagnostic surveillance detection) will determine vulnerable places and times. Physical security surveys of homes and offices can also be employed.
Potential kidnapping targets can also use executive protection details, but it is important to remember that guards with guns do not guarantee security. If a group is brazen enough to undertake a kidnapping, in many cases and many places it will not hesitate to use deadly force in the commission of its crime. There have been several cases in Mexico in which criminals have decided to attack despite precautions such as armored cars and armed guards. If criminals are given free rein to conduct pre-operational surveillance, they will be able to make plans to overcome any security measures in place, including armed security personnel.
However, in general, kidnapping is an avoidable danger. After recognizing that a threat exists, the next key concept that potential targets need to internalize is that criminals are vulnerable to detection as they plan a kidnapping. Moreover, ordinary people can develop the skills required to detect criminal surveillance and can take measures to avoid being victimized, such as reporting observed hostile surveillance to the police.
The fact is, most criminals practice terrible surveillance tradecraft. Despite their lack of skill, criminals are only able to succeed with their surveillance 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; anyone with the will and discipline to practice it can do so.
In this case, although Markus B. had cover for action — walking his dog — while conducting surveillance on Anneli-Marie and her family's home, as an amateur surveillant, he probably did not display good demeanor. It is highly likely that he appeared to be out of place in the family's neighborhood and could have been spotted if someone had been looking.