The Global Hostage Industry

Terrorist groups with few resources are increasingly using a weapon with big impact: kidnap


Five Westerners are taken hostage in Baghdad in a daring and outrageous operation involving suspected Shi'ite militia disguised as police. In Gaza the BBC journalist Alan Johnston is still languishing in captivity, a victim of the wider war between the Israelis and Palestinian insurgency groups. In the same part of the world, the Israeli army went to war in south Lebanon last summer in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to liberate one of their men who had been taken hostage by Hezbollah guerrillas. There is still no sign of any of the victims being freed.

Earlier this year, the Iranian Republican Guards tweaked the nose of the Royal Navy by snatching 15 sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf and keeping them at their government's leisure for an embarrassing week before disdainfully letting them go. In Russia, rebels loyal to Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev had a much more sinister purpose when they moved into a school at Beslan in north Ossetia in September 2004 to take schoolchildren prisoner and threaten the authorities with their death unless their demands were met. Almost 400 people were killed, the majority of them civilians and children, when the security forces mounted a botched rescue bid.

Further casualties had been caused in a Moscow cinema two years earlier when the same security forces moved against Chechen terrorists who were holding around 700 people hostage. In the counter-attack, 41 Chechens and 129 hostages were killed after the security forces attempted to contain the situation by pouring nerve gas into the cinema building. Every week in Nigeria, oil workers are taken hostage, and the numbers are so high that the incidents are rarely reported.

Welcome to the shadowy world of global terrorism, where innocent people become pawns in an increasingly deadly game in which lightly armed terrorists can take on the might of world powers by holding them to ransom. Not only does it give them a powerful bargaining counter but, as the cases of the Baghdad hostages and Alan Johnston have shown, it keeps the hostage-takers' grievances in the public eye. In the modern world of terrorist warfare, where there is no discernible front line and causes often remain bewilderingly unclear, the taking of hostages has become the new battlefield multiplier.

"If you're in command of a terrorist cell containing people who are little more than lightly trained and fanatical desperados, it's difficult to make a lasting impression on the security forces, " says a British military source. "You will have access to arms and explosives and you will be able to use them, but unless you come up with a spectacular you're not going to make much impression on the politicians. But you might just strike it lucky if you manage to get hold of high-value hostages."

INthe counter-insurgency war in Iraq, hostage-taking has become such a routine gambit that most incidents involving local people are not even reported. Most of them are staged by criminal gangs who take the opportunity to abduct wealthy or influential Iraqis and demand ransoms for their release.

They might claim to be operating for a political purpose, but the reality is that they are simply operating a terrorist franchise in a failed society where law and order has broken down and the police forces are powerless to intervene.

In Iraq, those same police forces often aid and abet the hostage-takers and may even be hostage-takers themselves.

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