An American woman and a local guide were kidnapped from a popular tourist destination in Uganda on Tuesday evening by unknown gunmen who have demanded a $500,000 ransom, according to police.
The Uganda Police Force said she was on a sightseeing tour around Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park on Tuesday evening, along with a senior guide and an elderly tourist couple when they were ambushed by four gun-wielding men. Police said she and the guide, identified as Jean-Paul Mirenge Remezo, were taken. The two others raised the alarm.
The Queen Elizabeth National Park is generally regarded as a safe tourist destination. It’s the most-visited national park in Uganda, with safaris offering the opportunity to see tree-climbing lions, herds of buffalo, elephants and hippos. But the park also shares a porous, forested border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rebel groups are known to be active.
Kidnappings of tourists are rare in Uganda, says Indigo Ellis, lead Congo analyst at global risk consultancy, Verisk Maplecroft. “But they’re becoming more popular.”
Here’s what to know.
What’s the likely motive for the crime?
The speed at which the $500,000 ransom was demanded – using the American victim’s cell phone, according to police – indicates that the crime has an economic motive, says Ellis. “Kidnappings are becoming more and more popular as a way of eking out as much financial gain as possible from the tourism sector,” she says.
The trend is driven by poverty in the region. In North Kivu, the province of Congo bordering the Queen Elizabeth National Park, GDP per capita has barely risen since the 1980s.
“Kidnapping is becoming more viable,” says Ellis. “And as we’ve seen with this case, the speed at which they demanded the ransom has got to be taken into account when we look at the motivations of these people.”
Is Uganda safe for tourists?
Most tourist trips to Uganda go ahead without incident, authorities say. Ugandan police said the kidnapping was “the first incident of this kind” ever registered in the park. “Those planning to visit the National Park and its surroundings should not be discouraged,” the force said in a statement.
But killings of tourists are not unprecedented in Uganda. “After separate killings of two Scandinavian nationals in hotels in Kampala in February 2018, the Ugandan government is extra-sensitive to perception that it cannot protect international visitors, a vital source of hard currency,” says Edward Hobey-Hamsher, Uganda analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.
The U.S. State Department tells tourists to “exercise increased caution” while traveling in Uganda, stating that local police often lack enough resources to respond effectively to crimes like kidnapping, armed robbery and sexual assault.
The State Department advises tourists to “reconsider travel” to Congo, however. North Kivu, the Congolese state bordering the Queen Elizabeth National Park, is singled out as a location where “severe outbreaks of violence targeting civilians” can occur.
Ugandan police said they closed off the border with Congo and “strongly believe” that the kidnappers, along with their victims, are still in the Queen Elizabeth National Park. But there is no guarantee that they were unable to slip across the border.
Uganda received some 1.4 million visitors in 2017 – about 78,000 of them from the Americas, according to the World Tourism Organization. South Africa, by comparison, saw 10.2 million visitors in 2017, nearly 550,000 from the Americas.
Who is responsible?
It’s not clear yet who is responsible for the kidnappings. But the kidnappers could be from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group originally from Uganda which is based across the border in Congo, according to Ellis, the risk analyst. The ADF began life as a force attempting to overthrow Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, but has morphed into a “criminal group,” says Ellis.
The ADF is likely responsible for the kidnapping, last year, of a group of tourists and their guide just across the border in Congo, according to Ellis. The group is also blamed for recent attacks on Ebola treatment centers trying to suppress an outbreak in Congo.
“The ADF has recently been linked to ISIS and al-Shabaab,” says Ellis. “But that’s not really the driving cause of that criminal criminal activity. It’s not terrorist completely in nature, it’s much more motivated by economic gain.”
A whole host of other militias and bandit groups – including deserters from the Ugandan armed forces – could also be responsible. If the kidnappers are from Congo, Ellis says, Uganda might be able to draw a line under the incident as a one-off. “If it turns out to be a Uganda-based group, then they’ll have slightly more difficulties in playing it off with international tourists.”
Will the ransom be paid?
Ugandan police said they would not pay the ransom. The U.S. government has a policy against paying ransoms to terrorist groups, but under President Barack Obama, the government announced it would stop prosecuting victims’ families who raised ransom money privately.
However earlier this week, before the kidnappings, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated the Trump Administration might seek to change those rules. “Any payment to a terrorist or a terrorist regime gives money so that they can seize more of our people,” he told families of American hostages at an event in Washington. “We cannot accept that risk.”
Therefore, whether a ransom is paid will likely depend on whether the group responsible has terrorist or financial motives.