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.
All that changes when the victim is a Westerner, because they are usually the type of high-value target described by the British military source. The official line is that Western governments will not give in to hostage-takers, far less negotiate with them. As soon as anyone is seized by the terrorists the word goes out that there will be no talks, no deals and no compromise. The reality is rather different. As the fates of the British hostage Ken Bigley and the US journalist Daniel Pearl showed, the end game for some of those caught by extremists is the terrible fate of decapitation and the release of television pictures showing in grisly detail the victim's last moment.
For the governments concerned this is an outcome which is painful and humiliating as it makes a nonsense, in Iraq at least, of the claim that their security forces are in control of the situation.
In both cases, strenuous attempts were made to discover where the men might be hidden, and in Bigley's case he came within a whisker of being sprung by the SAS. Operations of that kind do not happen by magic or good luck. To have any chance of getting close to the perpetrators of the crime, the potential rescuers need to get out and about to talk to people who might know the identities of the terrorists. In so doing they have to discover what sort of demands are being made and what is on the table as bargaining chips. Great patience is required, as it takes time and a good deal of hard-nosed bargaining to find any common ground. Neither side will trust the other, and it goes without saying that the security or intelligence services will always have a plan B - the use of overwhelming force once they know the whereabouts of the place where the hostage is being held.
There are exceptions. In Iraq and Afghanistan there were strong suspicions in the diplomatic community that the Italian government had cut deals with terrorist organisations to allow civilian hostages to be freed.
In March 2005, the journalist Giuliana Sgrena was released from captivity in Iraq following negotiations, but the operation ended in tragedy when US forces opened fire on the convoy taking her to the airport. Her bodyguard, Nicola Calipari, was killed in the incident. Last March a similar deal was struck in Afghanistan allowing Daniele Mastrogiacomo of La Repubblica newspaper to be released in return for the freedom of five Taliban gunmen. The negotiations were carried out by the Afghan administration on behalf of the Italian government.
"Regarding hostage demands, the negotiator attempts to avoid giving anything without getting some concessions in return, avoids suggesting possible demands, avoids offering anything unless it is requested, avoids giving more than is requested and avoids dismissing any demand as trivial." All negotiators agree that basic essentials such as food, water and medicine are negotiable and that transportation and media coverage are "situational" - that is, a commodity which can be given in return for important concessions - but the granting of weapons or the exchange of hostages are completely non-negotiable. The trick to a safe outcome is to keep the hostage-takers talking and at all costs to avoid confrontation. If armed police or snipers are present, they have to be kept well out of sight. Above all, terrorist groups crave publicity, and the careful use of media manipulation can often bring results at crucial stages in the negotiations.
"Kidnapping can bypass this dynamic by drawing out media attention and by allowing reporters to personalise the victim and humanise their story, " argue Michael Rubin and Suzanne Gershowitz in a recent paper on hostage-taking for the Middle East Forum. "For journalists, an assassination or bombing is anticlimactic; the press only begins its coverage after the operation has ended.
But uncertainty about whether a hostage remains alive creates the suspense necessary for a good news story." Most armies have specialist psy-ops personnel such as Colonel Jones who are trained in hostage negotiation, but hostage-taking is not a recent phenomenon; it has a long history. As soon as Western European countries started opening up and establishing trade routes in the late middle ages, an opportunity opened to take advantage of the presence of wealthy passers-by who could themselves be a source of income. In the Mediterranean and Atlantic, Barbary pirates caused havoc as corsairs from the north African coast captured Western ships, put their crews into slavery and held anyone of any importance, especially women, to ransom. It was a lucrative business, as most ransoms were eventually paid, and those passed into slavery provided a handy income.
THE Barbary pirates were mainly Muslim and their usage of hostage-taking continues today in Afghanistan and the main centres of the Middle East which are caught up in violence. It has been a fact of life in the armed struggle between Palestinian insurgents and the Israeli defence forces, who have made it a matter of honour to track down and find any soldier in the hands of Hamas or Hezbollah.
Perversely, the taking of hostages is a tactic which is forbidden by Islam, but in the main points of conflict in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and Israel it has turned into a highly effective weapon for Muslim terrorists.
"Hostage-taking has become a particularly effective tactic. Terrorists crave an audience. With the spread of terrorism in the late 20th century, audiences became inured to violence, " argue Rubin and Gershowitz. "Suicide bombings which might once have garnered headlines and commentary for a week now pass with bare mention. For a bombing or slaughter to win significant public attention, it must either target children - the Palestine Liberation Organisation's slaughter of school children in Ma'alot in 1974, or Chechen jihadists' seizure of a Beslan school 30 years later - or result in several hundred or thousands of casualties, such as occurred in the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998 and on 9/11." None of this will be of any comfort to Alan Johnston, who has been a hostage in Gaza for three months, or to the five taken hostage in Baghdad last week, but according to the terrorism specialist Profesor Paul Wilkinson of St Andrews University, as long as there are insurgency wars of the kind being waged in Iraq there will be terrorists who are willing and able to take hostages.
"It is extremely cheap and requires only small numbers of hostage takers armed with standard, widely available weaponry, " argues Wilkinson in his study Terrorism v Democracy.
"Above all, it is one of the very few terrorist tactics with a track record of success in forcing governments to major concessions."