The Global Hostage Industry

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


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."