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What to Do If You're Ever Taken Hostage

An interview with a hostage negotiator.

Everyone loves a hostage film. Whatever it is about people being unwillingly chained to things in basements for prolonged periods of time seems to grasp the general public's attention, so much so that films like Taken can spawn multiple sequels each grossing hundreds of millions of dollars while ostensibly operating under the same premise of: oh, someone's been taken again. It's a world we all know well through film and television, but little about in reality.


So what really happens away from the scripted bravado lines and murderous threats? What is it really like to deal with kidnappers? Here, an anonymous specialist at Athena Intelligence with years' worth of training and an illustrious army background – and who also helped design the UK Hostage Policy – tells us what it's like to be a hostage negotiator.

VICE: What are the basics of what you do in regards to kidnapping?
Hostage Negotiator: We will prepare people – diplomats, travelling businessmen, etc – on what to do to avoid being taken hostage, what to do if you are and how to survive. That's one side of things. The other side of things is when it all goes tits up because people haven't done any preparation or training because they wanted to save a bit of cash, or whatever, and it's all gone horribly wrong. Then they will call someone like me.

What's the most common reason for someone to be kidnapped and taken hostage?
There's a variety of motivating factors why somebody would kidnap somebody, and that could be anything from ideological to religious zealotry; financial crime to criminal activity; to extort money or because of temporary or even chronic mental illness. It can even be if someone is in prison and has decided to kidnap the guards. There's a variety of reasons why someone would want to take somebody hostage. The ones that generally make the news are the politically motivated and the religious zealotry ones because, unfortunately, they are interesting to people. We do also see the temporarily mentally unstable people: maybe a marriage gone wrong that has turned into a siege, or a disgruntled employee – we tend to see a lot of those. The newspapers like to focus on the religious ones, but the more you look into it, religion doesn't really come into it. It may on the face of things, but [kidnappings] are also a great source of finance for the organisations, so when you look deeper into it there is almost exclusively a financial or propaganda motive behind it.


So who would call you in a hostage situation? Do you work with the police or are you essentially an alternative to the police?
It depends on where it happens. Let's say if, in some countries, the police are not as capable or trustworthy as others, then you have to make that judgment call. It also depends on the demands of the kidnappers, and I'm not saying one should bend over backwards to accommodate kidnappers, but neither should one deliberately antagonise them when the situation is very inflammatory. So often they will say no police involvement and, in that case, the families or the organisations will contact me. I don't work for the insurance companies, although there are people that work exclusively for them.

When a kidnapping has taken place is there a fairly common hostage situation? Is it like what we see on TV and films – people being tied to chairs in abandoned buildings and demand videos being sent?
You'd be surprised – to an extent, it is. Again, it depends on the motivation behind the kidnap. If you're looking at the political and religiously-affiliated kidnappings, then yeah, the hostages are not treated particularly well, and that's why I stress the pre-deployment training so much – which is ridiculously ignored by a lot of organisations. But yeah, you can find them chained to chairs or whatever. They're going to be in very sparse conditions, certainly. In some circumstances they may not actually be held alone; they may be held with other hostages. They aren't necessarily held in a dark room with a locked door; there have been examples in the past where people have just been held in a village and been told, "There's nowhere to go, so you're just going to stay here because if you don't you're going to die." How somebody is confined is not necessarily a matter of how close those four walls are; it's just a restriction on movement.


So if you're kidnapped and find yourself taken hostage, what do you advise people to do?
If the worst happens and you are taken, then you have to be compliant. Be passive, but not submissive – there's a difference. Imagine your school bully: if they find someone who is submissive they are going to behave worse towards them. Likewise, if they see someone who is overly aggressive they are going to want to stamp it down. Don't antagonise them, but don't actually be the weak, crying mess in the corner because they will take advantage of that. Also, you have to remember that everything you do in captivity will play upon your mind every day for the rest of your life, and you've got to be able to live with yourself for whatever you did, whatever you said and however you behaved. Rightly or wrongly, they will continually play on your mind for the rest of your life.

That's why a lot of people must have correct reintegration into society, otherwise they are going to find it very difficult to do that again. They need proper psychiatric counselling to overcome the trauma. You have to be able to live with yourself and everything you did in that situation, so we give them various coping mechanisms as to how they can pass the time, how to liaise and form a rapport with your capturers. You have to humanise yourself, if [in the instance of a religious kidnapping] they see you as simply a white European then you are representative of the enemy to them and they will see you as something to kill. But if they see you as John Smith with two kids and a wife and a career, who cares about where they're from and shows a bit of interest in the religion and this sort of stuff, then it's a lot harder when it comes down to it to kill someone, likewise to maltreat them.


How do you get this information to them if they have already been kidnapped and they haven't prepared for it?
By that stage it's too late. Preparation is exactly that. But you'll always ask to speak to the hostage – that's the best way of getting proof of life and that the people that claim to have him or her actually do. Because that's another problem: when John Smith gets kidnapped there will be a lot of people coming around saying, "I've got John Smith," and who do you actually deal with? So you need evidence, and that comes through proof of life.

So people will falsely take claim for kidnappings?
Absolutely. You have to work out which organisation it is, who is the liaison, who is the point of contact for that organisation. Otherwise you could be wasting your time not speaking to the right people.

Is there a set time period in which, if the hostage situation hasn't been resolved, it's usually bad news?
It varies. My aim is always to resolve it as quickly as possible, but there is also some delicate balancing to be done – you can't be throwing money at the problem, because generally it encourages an industry. It really does. I always want to maintain a dialogue; if you don't hear from people then that's a bad sign. You always want to make sure that, before the end of any conversation, that you understand when the next one will take place. You leave doors open.

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I guess some people who are being kidnapped aren't always innocent themselves, so are you required to report things?
I'm not. I'm not a policeman. But, equally, before I take on a case I will need to understand it and the person involved and the reasons why, and sometimes you may not get the full story straight away. But I'm a private individual; if I'm not comfortable with something I can walk away or not take it in the first place. I like to think I work with the white hats rather than the black hats. Bad on bad crime does happen, but it's really not something I get involved in. Although, if the victim in a case is a child then they can't be held responsible for the sins of their father, so you just can't have a carte blanche line in the sand, and that's it: you have to view it on each individual case.

Do negotiations have a high success rate or do occasionally find yourself having to deal with tragedy?
There's a regional map of success rates. If you look at red, yellow and green, then South and Central America I would definitely put as red, along with some parts of the Middle East – but the vast part of the world would be a yellow or green. Almost always negotiations will end in a positive outcome; sometimes it may not be as fast as people like. If you look at places like South and Central America, where a kidnap industry has sprung up – and also parts of West Africa – by somebody just going, "I know what we can do: me and my mates will go and kidnap somebody and make some money," these are not experienced kidnappers. So they often panic and don't know what to do. They may sometimes get the money and then kill the hostage anyway.


Have you ever slipped up during a case and found yourself in danger?
It's always a risk, but I always say I'm a risk manager not a risk taker; I'll look at the situation and determine what resources are necessary to make that as safe as possible for everybody. But yeah, I've found myself in positions where I've not been entirely comfortable and I've been pretty glad to walk out in one piece.

Are you armed during these sorts of moments?
I don't carry firearms. In some cases I might have armed security with me or nearby, but if I've got to start shooting then it's gone horribly wrong

You said before that you don't want to throw money at these situations because it creates a kidnap industry, but at the same time you're reliant on that industry for your business – so what is the happy medium? What needs to change to make sure things don't get out of control and the industry booms?
I think governments generally have to take the stance of, "We will not negotiate, we will not make concessions, we will not make payment." They have to maintain that stance, but the reality is different. Pre-deployment training is essential and it is almost always overlooked, and the training people do get, if they get it, is appalling. It just annoys me when I go into an organisation to deliver this training and I hear some of the crap they've had in the past. I just think, 'Fucking hell – what were they thinking of when they told you this?'


I teach people how to avoid kidnapping and how to survive it; what I don't do is grab them off the street and put them in a dark room and beat the crap out of them for half a day. Some people do that. I don't do that. it's bollocks and all it does is create a psychological condition of helplessness in that individual, and that's what you don't want. So that training needs to happen more, and that would help reduce the kidnappings. Ultimately, I would be happier if people weren't kidnapped because I could make money elsewhere. I still make money from security and intelligence, so if kidnapping went to zero I'd be pretty happy.

Lastly, is there any place in the world or any organisation in the world – like ISIS or Mexico's drug cartels – that you just wouldn't visit or deal with?
I think you have to say that you would approach anywhere and you have to look at each case as an individual one: who is the person that's been taken? Why have they been taken? What do they want? And then see if you can bring anything to the party, and if you can't then you have a responsibility not to take the case. Your job is to get people out, and if you can do that it doesn't matter if they've been taken by someone in the Middle East or Central America – it's irrelevant; you just have to look at what you can bring to the party. In some parts of the world, if the police are already involved, then you may as well not bother because you won't be made welcome, you won't be given any support and they will actively cause problems for you. Each case is different.


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