The Global Hostage Industry

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


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.