We live in an age of increasing terrorism and criminal activity. Hostage taking and kidnapping have dramatically increased as a preferred tactic. Hostage US, a 501c3 non-profit organization that provides free support to families of Americans taken hostage or wrongfully detained abroad and to hostages and detainees when they return home, estimates that approximately 200 Americans are taken hostage overseas every year. In 2019, the US State Department updated its travel advisories to now include an indicator to highlight the risk of kidnapping and hostage taking.
Although the chances of being kidnapped or taken hostage are very low for most people, would you know what to do if it happened? Are you prepared? There are a few proven strategies that you can follow to increase your chances of survival.
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
The US State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service that allows US citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest US. Embassy or Consulate. When you participate in STEP, you may receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country which will help you make informed decisions about your travel plans. It will also help the US. Embassy, as well as family and friends, contact you in an emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster, civil unrest, or a family emergency. The State Department also offers a free Smart Traveler app for iOS and Android Devices. Smart Traveler may be downloaded from the App Store and Google Play.
Prevention is obviously the best hostage survival strategy. Be proactive. Follow appropriate risk mitigation strategies, reduce exposure and always maintain situational awareness. Preparation also key. You need to know what to do and how to do it in the event that an incident occurs.
Types of Hostage Takers and Hostage Situations
Identifying the type of hostage taker can provide information as to the reasons behind the hostage-taking incident. Hostage takers may be broken down into several main types: military and paramilitary; terrorists; criminals; the mentally ill; and the emotionally distraught. In some incidents, the hostage takers may fall into multiple categories.
There are four main types of hostage situations: barricade situations; kidnapping; containment situations; and human shields.
1. Barricade Situation: In a barricade situation, the hostages are held by the hostage takers at a clearly identified location and their lives bartered for demand. This is the favored action for terrorists seeking publicity. It’s a highly charged situation as the hostage takers are also in a sense captives to the responding authorities.
2. Kidnapping: Kidnapping is unlawful taking away or transportation of a person against that person’s will. It may be done for ransom, political leverage, or in furtherance of another crime, or in connection with a child custody dispute. The motive for terrorists is usually the release of political prisoners or imprisoned terrorists.
3. Containment: Containment refers to situations where a group is surrounded and contained by a larger force that has control of the area. There’s no direct control of the hostages other than a zone of containment. Violence is adverted as long as those contained remain stationary.
4. Human shields: In military and political terms, human shields are the deliberate placement of non-combatants in or around combat targets to deter the enemy from attacking these targets. It may also involve the use of non-combatants to shield combatants during attacks by forcing them to march in front of the combatants. Criminals may also use hostages as human shields.
There are several typical stages to a hostage situation: planning and surveillance; attack (taking and restraining of hostages); movement (typically only in kidnapping); captivity; and release.
Although there’s great variability in the behaviors of captors, you should expect the possibility physical restraint and sensory deprivation; mental cruelty; verbal abuse, interrogation; indoctrination/brainwashing; sleep deprivation; threats of injury and death; physical and sometimes sexual abuse.
The reaction and adaptation to captivity is highly variable among individuals. Six broad stages of reaction and adaptation to captivity have been recognized: startle / panic (first seconds to minute); disbelief (first minutes to hours); hyper-vigilance and anxiety (first hours to days); resistance / compliance (first days to weeks); depression and despair (first weeks to months); and gradual acceptance (first months to years).
Surviving a Hostage Situation
Surviving a hostage situation is to a considerable degree a matter of chance and will vary with the type of hostage taker and situation. The first 45 minutes of a hostage situation are regarded as the most dangerous, since both the captors and hostages are highly stressed and prone to act impulsively. The more time that passes, the greater your chances of being released alive. If you’re to be used as a bargaining tool or to obtain ransom, you’ll be kept alive.
Following a few guidelines can maximize your chances of survival. They are based on the experiences of previous hostages and experts in the field. Keep in mind that these are only general guidelines and not strict rules. Every situation is different.
The best opportunity for escape may take place at capture and while you are still in a public place. Things will likely get much worse. You need to be willing to incapacitate the threat if you’re unable to escape. If this is impossible or is deemed too risky, it is important to make as much commotion as is safely possible to draw the attention of others to you and the situation so that authorities are immediately notified. Be aware of escape opportunities during transit.
Maintain a survivor’s mindset. Preparation needs to start before an incident. Maintain situational awareness at all times. Have an escape plan in advance. And plan your evasion before attempting escape. When attempting to evade you goal is to get outside the hostile forces’ perimeter.
If you’re taken hostage, regain your composure as soon as possible. You need a clear mind. Concentrate on surviving. Overt resistance is usually counterproductive in a hostage situation. Remain calm, control impulsive behavior and follow instructions. Studies show that individuals who present a threatening manner to captors are the most likely to be killed or injured.
Be observant. While being transported (and you may be moved multiple times) make a mental note of the route. Attempt to visualize the route being taken, turns, street noise, smells and other route identifiers that can help identify where you were held. When you arrive at what you believe to be your final destination, pay attention to the details of the room, layout of the building, listen and make mental note of sounds and smells. Note the routines, number, names, physical descriptions, accents and rank structure your captors. Try to memorize this information as it will be helpful to authorities after your release. It will also be valuable in assessing and planning any escape.
Attempt to establish report with your captors. Captors generally consider hostages as expendable objects. It’s important to win your captors’ respect and get them to recognize you as a human being. Maintain your dignity. Foster communication on no threatening topics. Talk about family and interests but avoid political and sensitive issues. After you have established report you can try to ask for items of convenience, but keep requests reasonable and low-key.
Be prepared for a long stay. Set goals. Attempt to maintain some control of your environment to reduce the feelings of hopelessness. Keep your mind active. Eat and exercise as much as is possible to maintain body conditioning and counteract the effects of stress. Practice stress management techniques. And always maintain hope.
If you become aware of the presence of other hostages in the same building, try to establish ways to communicate. Be tolerant of any other hostages and don’t vent your frustrations on them. Also, don’t regard incidents of emotional breakdown in others as weakness.
During interrogation, be cooperative, non-antagonistic and non-hostile towards your captors. Be polite and control your temper. Give short answers. Talk about nonessential matters but be guarded on any matters of substance. Don’t be lulled by a friendly approach. The “good cop/bad cop” routine is a common interrogation technique.
If you’re forced to present terrorist demands in either writing or on tape, clearly state that those demands are from the captors. Maintain your personal dignity and don’t compromise your integrity or country.
Watch for signs of the “Stockholm syndrome.” The Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy toward their captors or the captors’ political cause. Also known as capture bonding, Stockholm syndrome was formally named in 1973 when four hostages were taken in a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden.
The FBI conducted a study of over 1,200 hostage-taking incidents. The researchers found that 92 percent of the hostages didn’t develop Stockholm syndrome. They concluded that three factors are necessary for the syndrome to develop:
1. The crisis situation lasts for several days or longer.
2. The hostage takers remain in contact with the hostages, i.e., the hostages aren’t placed in a separate room.
3. The hostage takers show some kindness toward the hostages or at least refrain from harming them. Hostages abused by captors typically feel anger toward them and don’t usually develop the syndrome.
The study also found that people who often feel helpless in other stressful life situations or are willing to do anything in order to survive seem to be more susceptible to developing Stockholm syndrome if they are taken hostage than those that don’t.
The Stockholm syndrome can be a two-way phenomenon. Captors may begin to develop empathy for their hostages. Some hostages have been able to use this to their advantage to gain concessions and even release from their captors.
Rescue and Release
Hostage negotiations can take time. Be patient. Most kidnappings and hostage-taking ends without loss of life or physical injury to the captive. Don’t try to escape unless you are certain you’ll be successful. If you’re able to escape and are outside of the United States, go to an American Embassy or Consulate for protection. If that’s not possible, go to a host government or friendly-government office.
Rescue will generally only be attempted after negotiations have failed. It’s the most dangerous time. It’s often said that more hostage are killed during rescue attempts than are killed by execution by hostage takers. Rescues will be conducted with the three pillars of CQB: speed, surprise and violence of action. You’ll have no advance warning. In a rescue attempt, the lives of the hostage takers, hostages and rescue forces are all in danger. The rescuers will be under great stresses.
You obviously don’t want to be mistakenly shot in the confusion. Don’t run. Drop to the floor and remain still. Make no sudden moves that a rescuer may interpret as hostile. Keep your hands clearly visible and empty. Follow all commands. Expect to be treated as one of the hostage takers until the rescuer determines that you’re a hostage. It’s not uncommon for hostage takers to disguise themselves as hostages. If you’re handcuffed and searched, don’t resist. This all may seem obvious, and it is, but people don’t always act logically in times of great stress and emotion.
You should attempt to avoid media exposure after release until after you have been properly debriefed. By talking with the media, you may unintentionally create difficulties for any remaining hostages. There’s also the possibility of your thinking being influenced by the Stockholm syndrome. Any comments to the press should be focused on how happy you are to be free and how you are looking forward to seeing your family and friends once again.
It Isn’t Always Over When It’s Over
The transition from hostage to freedom can be accompanied by difficulties in adjusting. Although everyone is different, how well hostages cope with recovery is generally dependent on the length and brutality of captivity. The need to appear to be coping can sometimes mask serious readjustment problems,
Stress reactions to captivity can occur long after release. Often former hostages don’t realize that the reactions are the result of their captivity. Readjustment problems can have a significant impact on one’s life and the life of one’s family and friends. They can often be remedied with assistance from professionals with experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
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