Assessing the Risk and Threat
of Hostile Organizations
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
On the evening of Tuesday, June 16, 2009, James Amburn, an American
banker and nancial advisor, was kidnapped from his home in Speyer,
Germany. The adversaries in this case can perhaps only be described as
history’s most usual crew of kidnappers to ever target another individual.
Amburn arrived at his residence to nd four men, all retirees with an age
range of between 57 and 80 years of age. They had traveled from their
homes in Bavaria, a distance of some 280 miles. Amburn had been the
advisor for these men and when the economy turned downward, they
lost approximately $5 million in investments in the U.S. real estate market.
During the discussion that followed their arrival at Amburn’s home,
one of the men mentioned to another to get the green folder from the car.
Unbeknownst to Amburn, this was the signal to start the kidnap. Amburn
was quickly overpowered and disabled by having his hands, knees, and
feet bound with duct tape. He was then put into a wooden box that the
men had previous constructed. The box with Amburn inside was placed
into the trunk of the kidnappers’ Audi 8 sedan and driven back to one of
the men’s homes near the Austrian border. Amburn was held prisoner for
four days in a basement cell until his rescue by law enforcement. All four
elderly men, along with their elderly wives, were arrested and ultimately
convicted of the crime.
This amazing story provides denitive proof that one can never know
with any certainty when or if he or she may be a target for organized
violence. This extends to law enforcement and security agencies, where
determining the presence and level of risk an individual may face can
be difcult to assess, even when the potential threat source and target
are known. When neither is known, conducting assessments requires
a different set of analytical processes, a little skill, resources, and even
luck. In the years following the September 11 attacks in New York City
and Washington, D.C., much has been said about “connecting the dots”
by government intelligence agencies, and how there were failures and
missed opportunities. Conducting a threat assessment against an adver-
sary can be extremely difcult, let alone against an unknown hostile
group. Rather than connecting the dots, it is more akin to putting together
a jigsaw puzzle without having all the pieces, not knowing if you can nd
all the pieces, or how many pieces there are in the rst place, and nally
having no idea what the nished picture looks like.
Much of the current literature dealing with threat assessments is from
the perspective that the “threatening” party is known to the victim and/
or authorities (including corporate security). These cases typically fall
into categories of stalking, mental illness, domestic violence, and antiso-
cial subjects. However, in examining organized targeted killings and kid-
nappings perpetrated against government representatives and corporate
executives over the past 60 years, many were attacked without ever receiv-
ing a threat. Alternatively, if threats were received, the individuals issuing
the threat never identied themselves and, more importantly, the hostile
parties tasked with conducting the attack were not known or believed to
have a direct link to the victim.
Organized targeted attacks are by their nature difcult to foresee.
The individuals in control of these groups are often dedicated and secre-
tive. This makes conrming the threat they represent and, more impor-
tantly, preempting them exceedingly difcult. The type of organization
the threat stems from also presents assessment problems. Terrorist orga-
nizations tend to have a longer time horizon in which to strike. Further,
should a particular target be deemed too difcult to reach, they can easily
switch to another and still accomplish their political goal.
Conversely, criminal groups tend to have a much more constricted
time frame in which to strike. They also tend to focus on a specic indi-
vidual causing them problems. However, if the target is determined to