The murky world of blackmail, extortion and witchcraft

While much is reported on the prevalence of abduction and kidnap, little is known of the often aligned crimes of blackmail and extortion. Andrew B Brown provides a case study of a crime aimed at maximising shame and reputational damage

June 2019 – Crisis Response Journal –

Whilst much is reported on the prevalence of the abduction/kidnap affecting workers over the globe, little is reported of the often-aligned crimes of blackmail and extortion, a despicable crime that often prays on the kind-hearted.

Derived from the mid-16th-century practice of Scottish Clan Chiefs levying protection money the term ‘Blackmail’ is more commonly defined as the action, treated as a criminal offence, of demanding money from someone in return for not revealing compromising information which one has about them. It is also the use of threats or the manipulation of someone’s feelings to force them to do something. Extortion is defined as the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats.

Despite the subtle differences in these crimes, they too can have a devastating impact on their victims, their families and their organisations where organisational reputation and ‘losing face’ are key impact factors in addition to the usual extorted commodity of money.

Like many crimes, both blackmail and extortion have moved with the times to exploit victims lack of awareness in good and through security awareness measures whilst working in the field, some examples are:

  • Sextortion – the practice of extorting money or sexual favours from someone by threatening to reveal evidence of their sexual activity.
  • Product Contamination – to contaminate or threaten to contaminate goods, or infer, or make it appear that good have been contaminated; with intent to cause public injury, alarm, anxiety or economic loss.
  • Cyber Extortion – the act of cyber-criminals demanding payment through the use of or threat of some form of malicious activity against a victim, such as data compromise or denial of service attack.

Often referred to as Crimes in Action they follow characteristics of the victim’s ability to make rapid decisions on the basis of very limited initial information. As the events unfold the escalation of information with a constant threat throughout adds significant pressure to intended victims and is designed to coerce them into submission and compliance with demands of the criminal.

The use of social media combined with poor online security has led to an increase in people being extorted and blackmailed as criminals harvest key facts about individuals and then use this key information to influence the victim into meeting their criminal demands, often for money.

In a recent case from Africa, a Congolese refugee had used his close relationship with an expat INGO worker to invent a fictitious ‘Mr X’ that was able to hack into encrypted communications and mysteriously read and capture all dialogue and shared photographs between the refugee and the INGO worker. In exploiting the relationship, he relied on the ‘shock & awe’ tactic of threatening to expose the INGO worker’s alleged sexual preferences to the local and national media to maximise shame and reputational damage to the individual but also the INGO organisation. The refugee had forwarded naked selfies of himself to the intended victim in classic ‘honey trap’ style as he uncovered and released the sexual preferences of his victim.

Responding to the call for assistance, it is essential to gather as much information as possible and it is important to keep the victim calm in what can be an emotionally impactful crime that threatens to destroy their reputation. Deploying various tactics, using intelligence and adopting an investigative approach helps to contain the extortion attempt. In this case, it threw up the use of Congolese witchcraft (Kindoki) as a threatening tactic against the victim. Kindoki is thought by its believers to be a kind of witchcraft or possession by evil spirits. In the Democratic Republic of Congo and among immigrants in the United Kingdom this belief is responsible for acts of child abandonment and ritual abuse of adults and children who were thought to have fallen victim to kindoki.

For the Christian INGO worker, the use of witchcraft threw a different and challenging dynamic into the equation. Not only was his reputation at risk, but also was the foundation of his faith as he saw this use of witchcraft as an orchestrated attack by demons on his soul. The challenge was to navigate the victim through this phase, by empathising with the victim and understanding the demonic phenomenon of invoking ancestral spirits, which was displayed in WhatsApp messages during the night, when the perpetrator ‘Mr X’ was listening to the voice of a deceased relative.

Keeping the victim calm and providing stability during the heat of the intense dialogue that terrified the victim was a challenge, but one that was achieved through reassurance and an ability to de-escalate the tensions of the situation to allow for logical thought. Importantly, not underestimating the emotional impact of the use of witchcraft and how it impacted heavily on the central belief system and values of the victim was essential to carefully guide them through this crisis.

Logical reasoning and a chronology of the dialogue only went some way in the investigation, so securing the iPhone of the refugee was vital for a further and fuller investigation. Despite all files being deleted and the SIM card being removed from the iPhone, with computer forensic support, we were able to uncover some 1600 files that provided all the evidence to clearly point the soul responsibility at the refugee who had befriended the INGO worker with the sole purpose of obtaining money.

A diligent investigation allowed the matter to be concluded without any reputational damage to both the victim, the INGO and acted as a timely reminder to staff to improve their online security. Some basic principles are as follows:

For your Personal Profile –

  • Never identify yourself as your employer personnel.
  • You should not discuss work-related topics on open forum/social network sites or say anything which undermines the work of your employer.
  • Do not share your work email address or telephone number on your social media profile.
  • Not disclosing information about your work and work contact details is to protect you from becoming a target of people or groups looking to influence/ infiltrate your employer. If you feel you have been targeted or information has been compromised then please seek advice from your line manager.
  • Social media accounts always have privacy settings – check them and ensure you understand how your information is used.
  • Be aware of who can see your personal social media pictures – particularly your profile images. We’d suggest not using images of your home, car, or children/young family wearing easily identifiable school uniforms.
  • To keep up-to-date with personal online safety tips and advice please visit the website:

For Friends –

  • When accepting others as ‘friends’ or making ‘friend requests’, always consider how well you know the individual and whether you are happy to be associated with them. Once accepted, they will be able to view personal information about you. Are you happy about that?
  • Be mindful that there’s a risk you could become a target, be knowingly primed for information, blackmailed or could leave yourself, family and friends vulnerable to personal threats.
  • It’s important that you make your friends and family aware that they should not be disclosing any information about your job or operational role.

Whilst incidents of extortion involving witchcraft are relatively rare, it is important to recognise that like the crime of kidnap for ransom, they are largely unreported so we never really know the true extent of these crimes of action.

What is true, is that it requires a highly skilled professional response to be able to contain the crime, keep the victim calm & reassured, mitigate any risks and diligently investigate the matter to its conclusion, so being appropriately insured for such risks whilst operating in the field is a worthwhile investment in staff care and to meet duty of care requirements.

Featured in Crisis Response Magazine | Volume 14 Issue 5 | June 2019.

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Andrew B Brown -About Me

Very calm in a crisis; a good listener; intelligent & knowledgeable; tactically aware and caring, I take highly emotionally charged situations, bring a focus and calmness that facilitates negotiations to deliver workable solutions for both parties.

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