The separate abductions of two high-profile businesspeople in recent weeks have prompted fears that a highly organised kidnapping syndicate is operating in South Africa — and that it may have international links.
The family of Pretoria businessperson Omar Carrim (76) fears he was abducted following his disappearance last Thursday. His burned-out car was found near Atteridgeville and his family has appealed to his kidnappers to take him to hospital because he has a serious heart condition.
The abductors of Cape Town businessperson Zhaun Ahmed (71) are reported to be demanding a R44‑million ransom for his safe release. He was captured by four armed men in Salt River on July 25.
This week, the Daily Voice reported that Ahmed’s family was “locked in tense negotiations with the kidnappers, who are believed to be Cape Flats underworld figures”.
Abductions for ransom appear to be most prevalent in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. In February, News24 reported that a police reservist was identified as being the mastermind in the “well-planned and organised” kidnapping of Cape Town businessperson Golam Mostafa. The shopkeeper was later found in a house in Khayelitsha. His abductors had allegedly demanded R10‑million for his release.
Private investigator Shaheen Suleiman of Magma Security said the syndicate appeared to have links to Mozambique, where several similar kidnappings have been reported.
“What happens is they [the kidnappers] see businessmen and they look for weak links. They then do their own investigations, then they kidnap a person. They leave it for about five to six days and then they start asking for ransom money,” he said.
“People allegedly working with the kidnappers would then make contact with their victim’s family. The people who will phone for the money are people from outside the country.
“It is usually countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. They call and say: ‘Listen, this is how much we want; pay us into this [overseas] account.’ The family then has to make a plan how this will happen to hand over the money. That is how they operate,” Suleiman said.
The string of abductions first aroused suspicions in November 2013 in Kokstad, southern KwaZulu-Natal, when a Bangladeshi businessperson was captured and tortured for days. He was released after his family paid R161 000 in ransom money 22 days later. At the time, IOL reported that he had been moved between safe houses in Durban and Pretoria. The case was solved by Suleiman.
Two months later, two men, allegedly with links to an international kidnapping syndicate, were arrested for kidnapping another Bangladeshi businessperson, this time in Richmond in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
Another private investigator, who asked not to be identified because he was “bound by secrecy”, said there were suggestions that the syndicate was specifically targeting businesspeople. He had investigated some of the abductions, he said.
A third private investigator said that, in his experience, such kidnap-for-ransom cases often have some international links — even when they happen in South Africa.
“We get South African families coming to us because their people have been kidnapped in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] or Cameroon, or somewhere. When the kidnapping happens in South Africa it is [usually] a foreigner who is kidnapped, and it is always a 419,” he said, referring to the notorious scam typically operated out of Nigeria in which a victim is convinced to advance money to a stranger.
When foreigners are persuaded to travel to South Africa as part of a 419 con and are kidnapped, the investigator said, the kidnapping “always” relies on foreign links.
Earlier in 2013, a Pakistani man — who was alleged to be part of an international kidnapping syndicate — appeared in a Port Elizabeth court for abducting a local businessperson and demanding a R1.5‑million ransom for his release.
In December 2015, the Sunday Tribune reported that Durban businessperson Mehboob Valimamade, who held both South African and Mozambican citizenship, was abducted by a “brazen” gang that had kidnapped and held for ransom several millionaires in Maputo.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said it was difficult for him to confirm or deny any links between these cases, or even the existence of such a syndicate, because it may prejudice ongoing investigations.
“What I do know is that towards the end of last year there were Pakistani/Bangladeshi guys that were kidnapped by the opposite nationalities. We arrested some people. That is the only thing that comes to mind; I don’t know of any other syndicates or kidnappings,” he said.
Naidoo said the police would only release information related to abductions if there were particular public consequences, for example if a person was being held in a public space.
He added that releasing information related to such cases could often prove “detrimental to the situation”.
“It can put the life of the victim in greater danger,” he said.