IIG News

IIG Insights: Kidnapped with Stephen McGown and iToo Special Risks

IIG together with iToo Special Risks had the pleasure of welcoming a record number of 230 members at this morning’s much anticipated Insights Session, held at the Wanderers Country Club.

The proceeding was hosted by Deputy President, Darryl Grater who welcomed everyone including IIG past Presidents, IIG Councillors & IIG Ambassadors in attendance. The IIG “Class Of” was also in attendance and used this opportunity to raise funds for their charity of choice, Ikholwa. The raffled prize being an enviable Ferrari experience sponsored by iToo.

Darryl thanked Justin Naylor, Managing Director of iToo, for the sponsorship of the insight session highlighting an extremely relevant topic in terms of the current climate.


Stephen McGown
Stephen opened his talk by sharing a sensitive video message that was filmed during his capture by the Al-Qaeda. He was kidnapped on the 25th Nov 2011 and released on 25th July 2017. Stephen is currently the longest-held captive by the Taliban.

He began his career in investment banking before traveling to the UK where he continued with banking and where he met his wife, a fellow South African before returning to SA and getting married.

Stephen was kidnapped as a tourist but spent 6 years as a POW (prisoner of war). He painted a shocking picture of how a journey through Timbuktu on his way home unexpectedly turned into a never-ending nightmare for him and his European colleagues. He briefly explained that the Al-Qaeda are fighting a religious war (Jihad) with the soldier being referred to as the Mujahideen. Incidentally, they were kidnapped by the Taliban during the Friday Salaah (prayer). The entire team was accosted violently whereby one of his colleagues was shot in the head three times. A treacherous 15hr drive and 500kms away into the unknown, with only the familiarity of the constellation in the night skies, maintained Stephen’s sanity and composure. Stephen reminded himself of Edwin Dyer, a previous known British hostage (2009) who was used to negotiate a “prisoner trade” for a Muslim terrorist, Edwin was later beheaded due to non-negotiations. Having a British passport himself, Stephen realised that he could a hostage with trade value.

Stephen went on to describe life in the desert. They were allowed brief breaks whereby they walked to exercise their limbs as much as possible. The terrorists were interested in Stephen and his colleague’s nationality but most importantly their religion. He realised very quickly, had he been Muslim he would have been released immediately as all Muslims are exempt by this sort of treatment by the Taliban as well as old people, children and women.

A strange routine began that would last almost 6 years, which included sharing a very thin blanket during freezing temperatures, sandstorms and thunderstorms. Camps were changed every two weeks and every evening they were handcuffed which later led to ankle shackles.

For Stephen, time and days became a commodity he wanted to control so he created a sundial documenting the Al-Qaeda’s routine. This sundial was made with anything from grass, dung or even one’s finger. It also became evident that their lives were less meaningful than the animals in the desert as animals could serve as food.

Eventually, the prisoners were able to create a roster and cook for themselves. They even became accustomed to and almost welcomed the fluffy desert rats that ran over their bodies while they slept, but, kept a close eye on the venomous snakes and scorpions.

There was a hierarchy within the Al-Qaeda of senior & middle management and the more junior would be tasked with babysitting the prisoners. All animals that were being eaten in the desert, be it, mice, birds, tortoises or lizards had to be slaughtered in the Islamic manner.

Fighting to remain sane became an arduous challenge, often being separated from the group. Eventually, against his personal upbringing, he decided to enter into Islam, which turned out to be an amazing release and surprisingly almost created a bond with his once torturers. By immersing himself into the religion, he almost understood the humanity behind these young, misguided & often illiterate boys masquerading as terrorists. In almost a twisted fate that could have existed in a parallel dimension, Stephen eventually became the “Imam” who used to lead these boys in their daily prayer.

The leader of the Al-Qaeda tried to induct Stephen daily into their Jihad, so Stephen strategically avoided him as much as possible. Instead, he immersed himself into the daily activities of making bread, assisting with camouflaging the vehicles of the Taliban and other menial activities. He viewed these tasks as contributing towards much-needed exercise which turned out to be a great stimulant for the brain. Stephen later even created a make-shift gym inside his tiny hut complete with homemade sandbags. One of his “luxuries” being, showering in thunderstorms and exfoliating in sandstorms. Surprisingly the prisoners fought consistently rather than being united in their trauma, so Stephen decided it best to pursue his own strategy. He began an unexpected journey of exchanging knowledge with the young terrorists. He taught them basic maths and a bit of French and he also provided services like repairing books, creating torches as well as repairing their cell phones.

Stephen had to “trick’ himself into motivating himself to be positive and maintain his sanity daily. All this time, he had to accept that his family would have naturally moved on with their lives. On the other side of reality, Stephen’s wife was struggling emotionally with this loss and had a complete nervous breakdown which led to depression and suicidal tendencies. Sadly, he lost his mum who was also battling depression and eventually succumbed to renal failure.

For almost 6 years he was held in western Mali. Just before his release he was handed over to a rebel group and then to a safe house and thereafter the South African Secret Service. His first exposure to home and safety was on-board the rescue flight whereby just hearing a South African Afrikaans accent on a flight attendant brought much relief. His Dad was the first to meet him and thereafter an emotional reunion with his wife.

Stephen’s life changed forever as he had to face a myriad of interviews and media attention hanging onto every word of this ordeal. However, in reality, for Stephen, suddenly being back to normality challenged him as he struggled to find his place in society and where exactly he fit in. Stephen concluded his session by sharing that his big lessons through this incredible ordeal has been, that rehabilitation cannot be forced, but have a goal in mind and work towards it daily. Don’t compare yourself to anyone and put yourself first because only when you’re complete in yourself can you then give back to another person.

Stephen graciously handled numerous curious questions from the audience as he continued to impart his invaluable wisdom, knowledge and tolerance of the unknown.

There was a 15min comfort break and thereafter Darryl Grater re-introduced Justin Naylor.

Justin gave a brief introduction into Kidnap and Ransom risk and iToo’s unique offering in this area.

iToo writes about 24 different classes and deems themselves experts in ‘out of ordinary’ classes of risk.  Kidnap & Ransom Risk is notably very secretive and confidential. Client details are never disclosed as this could potentially attract attacks and/or fraud. Shockingly, between 8000-15000 global kidnappings occur annually. Some of the high-risk countries are Nigeria, India, Cameroon and Kenya, but this list totals 47 different countries globally. Justin also made reference to the recent incident in South Africa whereby a schoolgirl was kidnapped with a request of R2million in ransom. Often kidnappings are either politically or commercially (business) motivated. But a large number being sexual in nature with high volumes of child trafficking. Criminal syndicates form with their main goal being cashing in on ransom monies.

Justin introduced Catia Folgore, iToo’s expert in global Kidnap & Ransom insurance.  Catia showed a short video clip from the movie, “Proof of Life” outlining just how treacherous a kidnapping and a search and rescue can get, not always the case in real life though.  In South Africa, a child goes missing every 9hrs and approximately 2 million children were trafficked just over last year. South Africa is ranked 6th in the world in terms of kidnapping.  iToo Special Risks provides comprehensive kidnap & ransom cover including 32x different types of risks. This includes a 24hr hotline as well as an online portal.  This typically covers a company; high net worth individuals; individuals with public profiles; Directors of listed company as well as people who work in high-risk areas.

Target Clients

High Net Worth Individuals:

  • Home invasion
  • Express kidnapping
  • Extortion
  • Stalking
  • Threat
  • disappearance

Commercial & Corporate:

  • Workplace violence
  • Kidnapping
  • Emergency political evacuation
  • Natural disaster evacuation
  • Terrorism

Vincent Schwartz
Justin thereafter introduced Vincent Schwartz of Unity Advisory Group.  Vincent not only has a Honours Degree in Criminology & Psychology but is also a Member of the World Detective Organisation. Unity Advisory is a privately owned and wholly independent organisation. The management team comprises of recognised leaders in this discreet area of expertise. Some of the developed networks consist of the military, law enforcement & government.  The areas of expertise include crisis management, negotiation strategy, risk assessment, media and internal communications as well as release and rehabilitation.  Vincent was very specific in what the organisation does not do in order to manage expectations. This includes rescue attempts, deliver on ransom, compete with law enforcement, disclose the identity of their clients and most importantly, they do not break the law.

An interesting observation that has been made is that usually victims are rarely harmed as they are seen as a commodity seeing that 70% of kidnappings are financially and/or politically motivated

Some TIPS to prevent becoming a victim of kidnapping are:

  • Predictable routines
  • Overt displays of wealth
  • Media & newspapers
  • Providing detailed personal info
  • Travel plans & itineraries
  • Laptops, cell phones
  • Trust your instincts
  • Understand the neighbourhood

Darryl wrapped up the event by thanking our speakers and reminded everyone to complete the IIG response cards.  There was a short Q&A session for Justin Naylor and his team.

Justin also advised that they’re looking to develop the cover to make the policy more available to the average person on holiday so that it can be included as part of the client’s travel insurance.

The IIG is deeply appreciative of the sponsorship of iToo in making this insight event possible and bringing to the industry valuable insight into a topical subject matter in South Africa and across the globe.

Article written by Asiya Swaleh

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