Laura's Writings

Terrorism and Hostage-Taking

Part 1 of 4

Terrorism can take many forms, all with different rates of frequency and preference among terrorists. Acts of bombing and assassination may rank high consistently, while hostage-taking rests much lower on the scale (Antokol 1990: 189). Despite its relative lack of frequency however, hostage-taking is an important form of terrorism, distinct from other forms. But, with so much destructive power available to terrorists, why should they need to take hostages? The answer is simple—media attention and money (Poland 1999: 169).

Bombing, arson, assassinations, and so forth will all make the news. But, there is something inherently dramatic in a hostage situation. We learn of these other incidents only after they have happened, when they cannot be prevented. A hostage situation, however, can drag on for many days, and the outcome remains in doubt (Antokol 1990: 58). Also, hostage-taking for ransom is one of the most profitable sources of funding for terrorist groups. There are always plenty of potential hostage-victims available and never enough security to protect them all (Poland 1999: 169).

Secondly, hostage-taking creates a dramatic forum in which human life and death hang in the balance. The outcome is suspenseful; there are victims, weapons and emotions; and most importantly, there is a message for the world (Gladis 1979: 11). This creates the suspense and danger that promises to be a sure-fire attention-getter for as long as it lasts (Antokol 1990: 58). When considering the continuing drama of a hostage situation and the visual image of a few armed individuals holding the lives of innocent people in their hands, the appeal of this mode of terrorism is clear. It creates a stage to dramatize and distort the aims of the terrorist(s) (Poland 1999: 169). These situations almost always ensure getting the attention of citizens, media, entire governments and/or private organizations. With the stakes being so high and in such an imminently delicate balance, it is quite possibly the only way to command such an audience (Antokol 1990: 75).

It is for these reasons that the study of hostage situations must be considered a separate and distinct form of terrorism requiring independent examination. The preceding characteristics of hostage-taking serve to establish an external picture of the situation—why it is appealing and how it affects those outside of the immediate situation, (anyone who is not a hostage, hostage-taker or negotiator). In order to better understand the situational dynamics of hostage-taking, however, it is necessary to adopt a more internal investigation of the situation. The vital elements to understanding hostage-taking as an important and distinct terrorist tactic are the profile of a hostage-taker, the dynamics of the hostage/hostage-taker relationship, the response and negotiation process, and the development of public policy in response to hostage-taking.

In order for a hostage-situation to arise, it requires the most basic unit of terrorism, the terrorist, and more specifically the hostage-taker; therefore, the analysis must begin here (Fuselier 1981: 2). Examining the typology of hostage-takers is the first step in this analysis. James M. Poland classifies hostage-takers into three broad categories: crusaders, criminals and crazies. The crusading hostage-taker is idealistic, seeking no personal gain but power and prestige for a collective political goal while acting for the interests of the collective good. The criminal hostage-taker however is driven by personal gain through the payment of ransom. Finally, the crazy hostage-taker is driven by personal motives that often do not make sense to anyone else (3).

The real danger lies with the crusading hostage-taker that is out to save the world or part of it, (for this reason, this analysis focuses mainly on the crusader). This type of hostage-taker poses the greatest threat to global security and individual freedom. Crusaders can act in the name of any number of causes ranging from political, social and religious (Poland 1999: 3-4). The crusader can then be classified into 3 sub-categories. The “social protestor,” for example, is dedicated to a cause and generally supported by a group who share the same demands. The social protestor can be difficult to negotiate with but is rational and tends to concede to reasonable solutions to the hostage situation (6).

The “ideological zealot,” unlike the social protestor, is ready to sacrifice his/her life for a cause. The ideological zealot can be a religious or political extremist or both. This type of hostage-taker is possibly the most ruthless because he/she is motivated to be violent and is willing to take unnecessary risks that often put the life of the hostage(s) in danger (Poland 1999: 6).

The “extremist” is the final of the three categories of crusaders. This terrorist is well-trained, disciplined and committed to fighting for an “independent state.” For example, the extremist factions of the PLO have been the most successful hostage-takers of the last twenty-five years. This type of terrorist is looking for maximum media coverage of the hostage-taking event and can allow the situation to last for days or even weeks (Poland 1999: 7).

Poland’s classification of hostage-takers represents only one in a spectrum of typology schemes. Antokol offers an additional form of classification that very narrowly defines the hostage-taker. Terrorist hostage-takers, (similar to Poland’s concept of “crusaders”), is the main focus of Antokol’s research. He holds that the typical terrorist comes from a middle- and upper-class family and is young, highly educated, and intelligent. Hostage-taking is, for them, a calculated activity to further a political agenda for which they are usually prepared to die (Antokol 1990: 25). While this is a rather narrow definition of a terrorist hostage-taker, his background and his motives, it serves as an example of the complexity of the dilemma of defining the terrorist hostage-taker.

The importance of understanding hostage-taker typology is two-fold. First, it serves to establish the fact that there is a broad range of terrorist hostage-takers backed by various causes, having different psychology, and different motives. The second importance is in realizing that closely related to types of individuals who take hostages is the type of situational dynamics that are created when a hostage situation arises. Equally important, and integral, to the understanding of a hostage-taker profile is the examination of possible motives and goals.

It was discussed earlier that the main motive of hostage-takers can be oriented politically, socially or religiously. As cited earlier through Poland’s explanation of typology, motives differ somewhat and are usually either the desire for money ransom, the release of prisoners, a platform to declare his/her views, or the opportunity to influence the behavior of governments (Poland 1999: 3). Miller agrees with Poland on this point when he states that “the primary purpose of intimidating persons, organizations, governments or groups of states [is] to modify their behavior to comply with the politically-oriented desires of the perpetrators” (Miller 1977: 67)...(cont.)

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Copyright © 2002 Laura K Rowe. All rights reserved.