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Security education: The art of hostage negotiations

September 30, 2012


There has been a considerable rise in kidnapping cases in Pakistan over the last few years, echoing the situation that prevailed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While many cases are resolved quietly, others end in tragedy. This was the sad fate of senior neurosurgeon and kidnap victim Dr Aftab Qureshi, who was killed when a rescue attempt went awry in Hyderabad on May 30 this year.

Several doctors have been abducted in Sindh in the last month, while kidnappings in Punjab have also risen. Foreign aid workers and businessmen are among the targets. Along with criminal gangs, groups affiliated with the Taliban who are believed to be involved in employing kidnappings for ransom as a fund-raising tool; demands in this regard have also become exorbitant, with some groups demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kidnappings have occurred since the beginning of recorded history. In ancient times, kidnapping victims were normally rescued by use of physical force. But today to tackle with kidnap and hostage situations the rescuers might have to involve themselves in prolonged delicate negotiations. As experience in many cases has proved the longer the duration of negotiation process, the brighter the chances for the victims to survive and be freed from the captors.

A hostage situation is a law enforcement worst case scenario because it places innocent civilians directly in harm’s way. Armed intervention becomes very risky, since the hostages themselves can be harmed either by stray bullets or by the hostage-takers.

That makes the negotiation the most important aspect of any hostage crisis. A skilled negotiator must find out what the hostage-taker wants, who he is and what it will take to achieve a peaceful outcome, all while ensuring the safety of the hostages and other bystanders.

Ideally, a hostage situation ends with everyone walking away (albeit with some of them in handcuffs). Now let us find out what happens on the scene of a hostage negotiation, how a negotiator gets the job done and what it takes to become a professional hostage negotiator. We will also take a look at the psychology of hostage-takers and hostages.

At the scene of any hostage crisis, the two most important officials are the commander, who has authority over the entire scene and all the personnel involved, and the negotiator, who communicates directly with the hostage-takers. It is vital that these two positions are not held by the same person. The negotiator has to keep an objective point of view and remain calm, both of which can be difficult if he is simultaneously making command decisions. Also, one of the negotiator’s most useful tactics is to cause delays by telling hostage-takers that higher authorities must be consulted before a decision can be made or a concession offered. If the negotiator is the highest authority at the scene, this obviously won’t work.

The negotiator’s first priority at the beginning of a negotiation is to gather information. A lot of information will come from other officers at the scene who have scouted the area or run background checks on the hostage-takers, but the negotiator can learn a lot from the hostage-takers themselves. The negotiator must find out who the hostage-takers are, why they are holding people hostage, what their demands are and who their leader is, if there is more than one. At the same time, the negotiator is paying close attention to the hostage-taker’s responses, mannerisms and general attitude in order to create a rough psychological profile. This can give the negotiator some clues as to how the hostage-taker might respond to certain situations — a negotiator deals very differently with a depressed, suicidal captor than with a cold, rational pragmatist.

Following are the primary objectives of a negotiator.

Prolong the situation The longer a hostage situation lasts, the more likely that it will end peacefully. Tactics include stalling while an official with more authority is consulted, getting deadlines pushed back, focusing the hostage-takers’ attention on details such as what type of ‘airplane’ they want and asking them open-ended questions rather than yes/no questions.

Ensure the safety of the hostages This means convincing the hostage-taker to allow medical treatment or release for sick or injured hostages, negotiating the delivery of food and water and negotiating the release of as many hostages as possible. Getting some of the hostages out of the situation not only ensures their safety, but it also simplifies the situation in the event that an armed assault becomes necessary. In addition, released hostages can provide invaluable information about the locations and habits of the captors and the other hostages.

Keep things calm From the initial assault through the first hours of negotiations, hostage-takers can be extremely volatile. They’re usually angry about whatever perceived injustice has led them to take hostages, and they are filled with adrenaline following the excitement of their attack. Angry, excited people with machine guns are not good for hostages. The negotiator should never argue with a hostage-taker and never say no to a demand. Instead, the negotiator should use delaying tactics or make a counter-offer. Above all, the negotiator should keep a positive, upbeat attitude, reassuring the hostage-taker that everything will eventually work out peacefully.

Foster the growth of relationships   The negotiator must seem credible to the captor. That is, the negotiator must act like he understands the reasons for the hostage-taker’s actions but still come across as strong — not just eager to please. The negotiator can also encourage activities that require cooperation and interaction between the captors and the hostages, such as sending food and medical supplies in bulk packages that have to be prepared. When the hostage-taker gets to know the hostages and sees them as human beings, it becomes more difficult to execute them.

The successful completion of a negotiation should result in an exchange of hostages for the negotiated ransom. The mission is not considered complete until the hostages have been returned home, or to a secure destination. During negotiations the negotiators may be forced to place themselves in a high risk position, to prove their good will and provide short term security to the hostage-taker. Whilst it is preferable that this does not happen, it may be necessary. I suggest that IG Police Sindh and Chief of Citizen-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) should obtain the membership of the ‘International Association of Hostage Negotiators’ and send their personnel to attend courses on hostage negotiations in UK and USA. They should also send their personnel to Pakistan Institute of Security Management at Karachi for attending specialist training courses on anti-kidnapping and hostage negotiation.

The writer, among many things, is former chief instructor of the Pakistan Institute of Security Management.