Negotiation Strategy in Hostage Scenarios

LTC James O. Pittman+


On the 19th of April, the nation was stunned by the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City. On a sunny day in the heartland of America, an ammonium nitrate and fuel oil device, concealed in the bed of a Ryder truck, exploded with terrible results. The truck bomb flattened the nine-story building, exploding under a ground level child care center killing most of the children, as well as over 200 additional victims.[1] Urban terror of the type that has slaughtered thousands in the Middle East had reached the United States (U.S) and we were horrified.

During that same week in Yokohama, Japan, an ultrasecret quasi-religious cult, the "Supreme Truth," released a phosgene-type gas at a train station causing more than 300 people to be hospitalized. No one died this time. A month earlier, however, thousands of people were injured, with 12 dying, after the cult released a Sarin type nerve agent in a Tokyo subway system during morning rush hour[2]. The Eskadi Ta Ascata Suna (ETA), the decades old Basque separatist terrorist group, more commonly known as the ETA, were also busy. This time, it was the attempted assassination of Jose Maria Aznar, widely expected to be Spain's next Prime Minister. As in Oklahoma City, an explosive device (45 pounds of remote detonated explosive) was placed in a vehicle and exploded when Aznar's armored plated vehicle passed by. Although his car was heavily damaged, he escaped with minor injuries.[3] Jose Aznar was more fortunate than Spain's Prime Minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, who was killed by the ETA in a 1972 bombing/assassination.[4]

Three separate incidents, within the same week on three different continents, caused the deaths of over 240 innocent victims and the injury of almost a thousand people. Terrorism has been with us for thousands of years and as recent events have proven, will continue to affect our lives. How to effectively confront terrorism has been widely studied, with many varied opinions as to which method or philosophy is best. One school of thought emphasizes the tactical approach, which is characterized by such rhetoric as, "we don't negotiate, rapid response antiterrorist units, lethal compromise, and terminal action units." The American Delta Force, German GSG-9, Israeli Sayaret Maktal, and British Special Air Service are all examples of the international tactical response to terrorism. Unfortunately, it seems that no matter how much money is spent, or how well-trained our tactical forces are, we still have innocent people killed as a result of operations "gone wrong." One might arguably use the hostage disaster in Munich in 1972, as well as Ruby Ridge and Waco, as examples of why the tactical response should be avoided. On the other hand, brilliant operations such as the successful hostage rescue in Entebbe by the Israeli's, or the German GSG-9 rescue in Mogadishu, reinforces the fact that sometimes tactical operations do work. One thing is evident, and that is when tactical response operations fail, or work, death is often a by-product. Someone, a hostage, terrorist, or rescuer, often dies. Sometimes all of them.

In this article, the author presents a rather philosophical view of terrorism and terrorists. Some historical perspectives of terrorism will be discussed, as well as an examination of a graduated response approach in dealing with a hostage situation.

Historical Aspects of Terrorism

"Revolutionaries who take the law into their own hands are terrifying, not as villains, but as runaway mechanisms out of control, as runaway machines"
Boris Pasternak

Terror, as defined by the Random House Dictionary, is an "intense, sharp, overmasting fear in the presence of danger or evil." The Department of Defense (DOD) definition is more comprehensive, seeing terrorism as "the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain goals, political, religious, or ideological in nature."[5] Both of these rather simplistic definitions give rise to hundreds of possible incident scenarios: A drug addict robs an elderly woman for cash to support his habit; a jogger is severely beaten, gang-raped, and left for dead in Central Park; or a "Blood" shoots a "Crip" because he doesn't like the color of his victims hat. These situations all fit the definitions of terrorism in terms of the use of violence, instilling fear, attaining goals, and they are all manifestations of terror. We read about crimes of violence or lunacy almost on a daily basis in the newspapers. What makes a single murder by a criminal different than that of a serial killer, or perhaps a disgruntled ex-soldier who decides to blow up a building? What makes one a terrorist and the other just a criminal? Sometimes it's merely a matter of who is doing the labeling.

Who is a Terrorist?

There is an old saying that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." The sad fact is that this is perhaps one of the few "truths" when taking a historical view of terrorism. We can better understand this comparison when examining past and present political movements. One example is South Africa. We are all aware of the turbulent history of the Southern Cape, a history steeped in the blood of Zulus, British, Boers,Germans, and thousands of others who have found themselves caught up in one political, military, ideological, or cultural conflict after another. Nelson Mandela, the current head of state, is widely hailed by the world as the "savior" of the "New South Africa. "After decades of imprisonment, Mandela was released to eventually end the Botha-designed government and bring about an end, at least officially, to apartheid. Mandela's political party, the African National Congress (ANC), outlawed for decades, is now recognized as an official political entity. Hollywood and the world cinema has brought us to tears with films such as "Biko" and "The Power of One," and it is not difficult to accept Mandela as the "Savior of South Africa" if we ignore the past.

In the decade before Mr Mandela's ascent to political authority, the ANC was responsible for countless killings, bombings, and assassinations of political opponents and innocent victims. Their trademark, often seen in places like Soweto, was the "tire-necklace," a car tire soaked in petrol and set afire after being placed around the neck of their intended target. Not a pleasant way to die, and such acts certainly meet several criteria in the DOD definition of terrorism. Torture, murder, and assassination are certainly some of the more heinous acts of violence, and since many of those targeted by ANC terror were in opposition to ANC political views, the political or ideologicalcomponent is present as well. The ANC, like many Black Nationalist movements in Africa, was heavily steeped in Marxist doctrine and, in reality, sought political control over the 30 million black Africans in Southern Africa by military factions such as the Southwest Africa People's Organization, with whom the ANC had working alliances. Mr Mandela, the ANC's titular leader since 1949, is now the accepted "hero" of South Africa. Isn't it strange that an individual who has headed an organization that killed opponents, received aid from Cuba in Angola, and often bombed white-owned businesses is viewed as a "freedom fighter" instead of a terrorist. One man's terrorist can be another man's freedom fighter.[6]

South Africa and Nelson Mandela are merely one example of the effectiveness of terror when used to attain political or ideological objectives and political legitimacy. There are many other examples: Menachim Begin, the former head of the state of Israel, who began his political growth as a member of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL), eventually rising to lead the IZL and participated in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in the name of Zionist liberation from British rule. There are other stellar examples of individuals who started out as users of terrorism, became perceived as "freedom fighters" or "revolutionaries," and eventually became political leaders or heads of state: Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, and Yasir Arafat, to name a few.

Political movements or ideologies have also spawned mass terrorism in this century. Some of the more tragic examples: Hitler's 10-12 million murdered for "racial purity"; Mao's estimated 34-64 million for Chinese "Liberation"; Stalin's murdering of over 20 million Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, and other "purged" victims in the Post-World War II Soviet Union; and we can't leave out the Pol Pots, General Mladics and all the others who have added their contributions to the butcher's bill. The point to be made is that terror has many names and takes many forms. What may be terror for one individual or nation is justifiable defense or divine destiny for another. It can be very confusing to ascertain who is morally right, and when terror is justified and when it is not. Terrorism and terrorists arenot merely terms which can be condensed into simplistic definitions to suit a particular culture or legal structure. They are movements and/or organizations which are made up of people with a cause or belief, a goal, or a perceived sense of right, many of them very much like you or I. Terrorists represent a dimension of behavior that can be said to be inherent in all of us, if provided the right motivation. What can be gauged is this "motivation," in terms of coming to a more rational explanation as to why some human beings do the horrible things they do. Some, in assessing their motivations, can be quickly condemned because they represent examples of humanity which most cultures find reprehensible. Others, however, may not be as easily judged.


Frederick J. Hacker, in 1976, presented one of the first attempts to categorize terrorists according to a typology of characteristics, his premise being that terrorists usually represent three specific "Types," each with unique, specific goals.[7]

The first category, according to Hacker, is the "Criminal Type" terrorist. This individual or organization uses intimidation, coercion, and fear, to achieve goals that are often characterized by monetary gain or acquisition of power overwealth inducing activities. We have historically witnessed stellar examples of what could be marked as actions by Criminal Type terrorists. Al Capone, the Colombian Drug Cartels, and Sicilian and Russian Mafioso are a few examples of individuals or organizations which can be said to have manifested terrorist actions unique to the Criminal Type typology.

The second Terrorist Type in Hacker's typology is the "Crazie Type," and this descriptive typing terminology leaves little guesswork as to associative characteristics. This type of terrorist initiates acts of terrorism usually marked by a partial or total loss of self-impulse control, which may erupt in acts of gross violence and destruction. Charles Whitman in a university bell tower in Austin; Huberty at a McDonalds in San Ysidro; and the Stockton massacre are some of the more notable examples. On a less spectacular scale, we have the serial killers; out of control human predators like Ted Bundy and Henry Lucas, who perhaps induce even a greater specter of terror over longer periods of time. They have paralyzed whole communities and cities, in some cases for years, with their acts of butchery and random violence which often seemed to target innocent victims.

The final category type proposed by Hacker is the "Crusader- Type" terrorist. These are usually individuals or organizations who systematically use elements of terror as a means to further specific goals and objectives, and can be said to have induced most of the deaths related to terrorist attacks and movements in the last 75 years. Crusader-type terrorists are usually extraordinary in terms of motivation and belief in what they are doing. They often possess above-average intelligence, special skills, and individual qualities which are governed by an almost overwhelming sense of belief in their cause. The crusader-type terrorist often focuses on destroying existing frameworks of government, symbols of law and order or oppositional political beliefs, or imposing a political or ideological philosophy by eliminating all who oppose their goals as well as their supporters. Often, they are sponsored by sophisticated front organizations and funded by a vast array of supporters who share political, ideological, or religious views, or have themselves something to gain through terrorist actions. One of the best examples of a crusader-type/sponsoring organization is the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Crusader-Type terrorist organizations and their members usually strive to create a sense of political legitimacy in their actions, often claiming to be soldiers in "people's liberation fronts, or revolutionary Armies." Many have valid, historical grievances which can be empathized with, and sophisticated crusader-type terrorists capitalize on these issues to manipulate the electronic media. They often have, as a primary goal, the influencing of a world media rather than the mere act of killing or other acts of terror. They seek to generate sympathy for their cause which will, hopefully, lead to the investment of political legitimacy, which through terror and destruction, they conspicuously lack. Many, such as the PLO, have succeeded spectacularly.

Of the three terrorist types, the crusader is the most dangerous threat to most Americans, U.S. soldiers and their families, especially in a hostage-taking or terrorist containment situation. The crusader-type terrorist often has a high degree of personal bravery, at times bordering on fanaticism, and in many instances willing to risk death, injury, or imprisonment. This is not to say all crusader-type terrorists will fit into this description, but U.S. Forces have unfortunately encountered some who do (for example, Marine Battalion Landing Team Bombing-Beirut, 23 October 1983). Any negotiation attempts from the very beginning of an incident involving Crusader-Type errorists/organizations, must accept the realization that to the terrorist failure is unacceptable at any cost. When these situations are encountered, the appropriate response should be elementary: how to develop the situation with minimal, and preferably, no loss of life.


Terrorists often initiate an operation, whether it is a single assassination or the destruction of an aircraft, with a specific goal or purpose in mind. Just as you would not throw away your life for nothing, neither will most terrorists. We would like to think of terrorists as insane aberrations of humanity, for how could any sane member of the human race project the horrid violence that has been perpetrated by terrorists, often against innocent victims. It is also easier to rationalize demonstrated impotence in dealing with terrorists by merely believing the myth that, "They were fanatics and no one could predict they would blow up the school, or insane terrorists attacked the Lod airport today." They are anything but insane. Terrorists usually meticulously plan an operation utilizing many planning elements common to military procedures. They select a target, assess the impact of the proposed operation, identify operatives to initiate the attack, ensure that logistical support and training are adequate, implement security measures, plan evasion/escape measures, and also develop alternative plans of action. Sound familiar? You find the same recommendations in many tactical manuals of military forces around the world. Terrorists are dedicated individuals who always have a goal or purpose secondary to their action.

In the initial stages of the actual incident, terrorists often feel that they are totally in control and somewhat omnipotent. Some may feel that they have the mandate of a supernatural force (Allah), or that they are so effective(due to past successes) that nothing can stop them. If they are strongly dedicated to their belief/cause and operating under a "win or die" mentality, then in some ways, they are in control.

The terrorist may initiate an incident with a greater meaning associated with their death than their life: a preconceived idea as to how their victory and death will enhance their cause. What countermeasures do you employ against an individual who has given themselves permission to die? How do you create of field of effective action versus a field of battle?

One perspective might be to never lose track of the fact that terrorists are human beings just like you or I and are not usually senseless, unfeeling, immoral, nonthinking organisms of insanity. It is not characteristic of human beings to place themselves into situations where death is a certainty. Of coursethere have been exceptions, and in retrospective analysis of some situations that have "gone sour" and massive blood-letting resulted, the terrorists often reached their limit of emotional distress and physical fatigue and were convinced that a violent, suicidal action was their only option. (Munich Olympics Black September Attack-1972; Palace of Justice Terrorist Siege, Bogota, Columbia-1985; Pan Am Flight 73 Attack, Karachi, Pakistan-1986). In these situations, the terrorists may develop an ambivalence concerning life-and-death as the incident evolves, which often weighs more heavily towards the death option as communications break down. They essentially develop a suicidal framework of thinking due to a realization of the actual helplessness and hopelessness of their situation. When total loss of control is perceived, they respond with violent action which often leads to their deaths, and perhaps hostage deaths as well. If this pathology sounds familiar, it should. These are often the same situation-response interpretations that normal people use to justify killing themselves. The only real difference is the situational environment.

In Carlos Marighella's book, "The Mini-manual of the Urban Guerrilla," he states that terrorists "do not kill in anger, nor do they kill on impulse, they kill as a matter of course."[8] Marighella goes on to imply that events determine the level of violence used, and that if a course of action marked by killing will achieve the proper results, then the terrorist will kill. He states, "What matters is not the identity of their corpse, but its impact on their audience." There is a parallel with this view in analysis of why people kill themselves. In the suicidal individual, the effect that their death will have is often of paramount concern, not what their death will do to glorify or strengthen a particular political, ideological,or religious cause. Pathological and etiological comparisons of the suicidal patient versus the terrorist personality type can provide a rather innovational frame of reference to assist those of us who may find ourselves negotiating a terrorist incident, or any situation involving the taking of hostages or approaching a tactical response.

Motivational Factors

Aguilera and Messick present three primary motivations which often precede a violent act: loss of communication, ambivalence towards life-and-death, and the effect of a death on others.[9] Although Aguilera and Messick's premise concerning the epigenesis of a violent action is founded in a traditional crisis intervention framework, their assumptions can also be adapted in an analysis of a terrorist incident where violent action may occur. For a terrorist, death may be interpreted as martyrdom and viewed as a means to strengthen a political, religious, or ideological belief or cause. Understanding the relationship between motivational factors and the terrorist action is crucial in developing a correct strategy of negotiation. Each motivation variable must be addressed by the negotiator, and more important, understood by tactical response elements, many of whom historically have had itchy trigger-fingers.

Motivation Factor 1 - Communication

An effective modem of communication must be established as soon as possible after the terrorist(s) make their presence known. Ideally, the first contact will be marked by a copious absence of tactical troops or armed containment groups. Seeing tactical response teams deploy, assault troops, snipers, police, and perhaps armored vehicles, will definitely heighten the stress levels and enhance the adrenaline output of individuals who have already made the decision to do something that might induce causalities.

There is a time and a place for the deployment of tactical troops, but any decision to deploy tactical response personnel should always be the last option and only during one of the following three situations:

In the author's opinion, these are the only options in lieu of negotiation, this view is supported by history. A few examples: Munich Olympics-1972, tactical response-9 dead hostages; U.S. Embassy Takeover-1979, protracted negotiation-0 dead; Branch Davidian seige-1994, tactical response, over 89 dead (including Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firemans (BATF) agents).

Recently, one of the major prime time programs on television broadcast a segment on both the Waco, Texas, tragedy and the Oklahoma City bombing. The Waco incident was seen as a Keystone Cops fiasco, with Federal agencies from the BATF to the U.S. Attorney General's office bumbling around, all trying to point the finger of culpability at someone else. The usual villain always seemed to be David Koresh. The entire operation, from beginning to end, was seen by many as a dismal failure. Could it have turned out differently if negotiations had continued and the tactical response teams of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and BATF had been banned from sight? We will never know. However, history supports a greater probability of a better end than the one which we all saw on our own television sets. The inability to establish an effective modem of communication was apparent at Waco from start to finish.

History has shown that terrorists often select the medium of communication to be used. It may be a telephone or perhaps face-to-face contact. Either way, the job of the negotiator is to convince the terrorist that you are listening, want to avoid violence at all costs, and most important, there is always a better alternative than violence. As stated earlier, violence is the final expression of the terrorist's dedication when all other forms of alternative expression have failed. Violence might be viewed as a final, desperate attempt to get an acceptable response to their demands (needs). Thus, the negotiator must do all that is needed to alleviate distrust and desperation from escalating, as these feelings will be there from the onset. This may be a difficult task for a negotiator who may be looking down the barrel of an AK-47 Rifle held by a Shite Hezbollah terrorist. Another important point the negotiator must consider: don't attempt anything if you feel you can't do the job, because doing the job means placing yourself in a highly sensitive posture. You don't want to be the one responsible for making a bad situation worse. There are always enough experts around to do that for you.

Motivation Factor 2 - Ambivalence

The second motivating factor for the negotiator to consider in developing a negotiation strategy is the degree of ambivalence that the terrorist(s) may have towards life and death. Statistically, only a small percentage of terrorist situations involving hostages ended in mass murder and suicidal action. One study conducted by RAND, indicated that 86% of victims in a kidnap/hostage situation survived. One pattern identified in the study was that although terrorists sometimes kill at the start of an operation to demonstrate their resolve or capability fordestruction, they usually seek to influence attainment of their goal, and generally do not kill on a mass/indiscriminate scale. There have, of course, been exceptions like Lod Airport, the Marine Corps Landing Team Barracks in Beirut, and the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.

What is critical for the negotiator in understanding the Ambivalence Motivator, is that the negotiator must recognize and accept the concept that ambivalence is a universal human trait and can be modified and/or manipulated.

All human beings experience ambivalence from time to time.Ambivalence is often demonstrated when we choose a place to live, a profession, or where we vacation. The choices we may make concerning a place, time, and manner of death is no exception. Doctor Kevorkian is a great example of the truth in this premise. A terrorist with a loving wife and 6 children in Athens may not be as prone to die as an 18 year old Hezbollah member whose family was killed in Lebanon by Israelis. The point is, every person involved in a terrorist/hostage situation will be divided as to how far they are willing to go in seeking their goal, whether that goal is release of political prisoners, surviving the incident, or killing all the terrorists. All involved will be uncertain over what decisions will provide the best chances for successfully surviving the situation. The hostages want to be rescued from possible death, captivity, or worse, and the terrorists want to obtain as many of their demands/goals as possible or to make their point as powerfully as they can. Like their hostages, most terrorists prefer to avoid death or captivity if at all possible. They basically want to be rescued from the situation as well. Tactical troops (the rescuers) want to protect the hostages from death or captivity, deny the terrorists a victory, and in the process hopefully avoid death or captivity themselves. The fact is, all the "players" in a terrorist hostage situation, the terrorist(s), the hostages, and the tactical personnel are all captives in the drama looking for an acceptable way out. Like Pasternak's "runaway locomotive," when the incident gets totally out of control, it is irrelevant what the catalyst was, a crash ensues nevertheless!

The negotiator must understand the terrorist, their organization, history and cause, and using this knowledge attempt to capitalize on the terrorist(s) will to live and what life means, not death. There must be realistic options identified to provide the terrorist alternative actions other than "going out in a blaze of glory" and taking everyone with them. Threats of death and violence should never be taken lightly. On the contrary, a terrorist's homicidal ideation must be taken just as seriously as that of a suicidal patient talking about killing themself. Every word or action during the incident could be pivotal and all actions must be explored within the present context of that particular individual or group.

The unfortunate dilemma in dealing with the ambivalence factor is that terrorists don't usually start thinking seriously about dying until death is literally staring them in the face, and by then, they may have already killed. Once a hostage has been killed, negotiation truly becomes a precarious venture, especially if those doing the killing feel they have burned all bridges and now have nothing else to achieve but death!

Motivational Factor 3 - Effects On Others

The third and final motivating factor for the negotiator to assess is the effect that a particular action may have on others. One method in making this assessment is to examine the incident from three specific perspectives:

Imagine being in a crisis situation where you are attempting to convince a suicidal person that their life is worthy and has meaning. To be convincing, you must have some idea how that person sees themself and try to identify the type of message the potential victim may envision as resulting from their untimely demise. A suicide might generate feelings of sympathy, anger, anxiety, hostility on the part of the victim's family, or maybe even in some cases, joy.

Recall the terrorist events that you are somewhat familiar with from the past. Could the goals of terrorist actions in places like Belfast, Munich, Beirut, or Waco demonstrate some of the etiological patterns of behavior and pathology that we see in suicidal patients? Did these events generate anger or sympathy in any particular groups? Did they serve to manipulate policies or perhaps political forces? See the similarities? In many ways, thegenerated effects of both successful suicides and terrorists who choose to die, are similar. The only difference is that one system (suicidal victim) is concerned with the effects that their actions and their method of suicide will have on the smaller or family level; the other system (terrorist) focuses on the effects their action and death will have on the larger level (worldwide media). With this concept in mind, it is easy to accept the premise that in terrorist actions, not only does the end justify the means to the terrorist, it is all that matters! In addressing this conceptual idea, the negotiator must attempt to reframe for the terrorist, hostages, tactical troops, and media what is an acceptable and realistic ending to the drama, given the goals of all "players."

Psychodynamics of a Terrorist Incident

Trained negotiators are not immediately available in all situations, especially those which might involve military personnel. Even when they are, what you may have is a young Criminal Investigation Division or Office of Special Investigation agent whose only expertise is having attended a course at Fort McClellan or Fort Bragg. When you examine the apparent failure of the FBI/BATF at the Branch Davidian siege at Waco, in respect to their application of negotiation strategy, it is frightening really scary. They are assumed to be the best in the nation! If so, then why did over 80 men, women, and children die.

The answer is simple: the bridging of effective negotiation with an understood tactical response appears to have been absent at Waco. This observation is supported by Clint Van Zandt, who was a member of the FBI negotiation team at Waco and blamed the FBI and other law enforcement agencies for the Waco tragedy. Van Zandt stated that the Waco siege was, "almost beyond repair when the bureau got involved." The FBI Director Louis Freeh, during a House Sub-Committee meeting, commented that, "tactics that have no legitimate basis as either part of a sound negotiation strategy, or part of a well-planned tactical solution are not going to be part of this FBI"?[10] What is Freeh actually saying? Has the FBI finally realized that tactical responses cause causalities? Are they going to relegate a tactical response to a last resort? Is the FBI going to talk instead of shoot? Based on the Bureau's history, the author would have to say no to all of the above. Even the nations "best" proved that having an effective strategy of negotiation first and a tactical response as a last resort is easily accomplished in rhetoric, but difficult to implement in a real situation. Could it be a problem of too many engineers trying to drive the "runaway train"?

One Approach Strategy

Someone once said that an "expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less." With this in mind, the following approach should be considered as a starting point for all "nonexperts," who might find themself confronted with a terrorist/hostage situation.

The communication process between the negotiator and the terrorist can be viewed as a unique state of interaction between diametrically opposed forces. The terrorist(s) are out to achieve specific goals or objectives, as are all the "players" in an incident. Everyone at the onset idealistically wants something else, and when things don't go according to calculations, all are thrust into an emotional state of imbalance and crisis.

Caplan identified four developmental stages of a crisis.[11] The first stage is characterized by a marked increase in tension, as habitual problem-solving techniques are attempted. As these fail, and inadequate coping mechanisms increase tension, more anxiety and discomfort is experienced (stage 2). As further tension increases, emergency problem-solving techniques are tried and the individual mobilizes all perceived internal and external resources (stage 3). At this stage, problems may be redefined or reframed and goals either modified or determined as unattainable. There may also be a total resignation to accept whatever comes, or in some instances, a complete "giving up." If the tension and stress continues or accelerates, and it cannot be contained, solved, or avoided, a major imbalance or psychoemotional disorganization occurs (stage 4). In other words, a major crisis develops.

The epigenesis of a crisis and the stages that are experienced are determined by the presence, or absence, of what Caplan refers to as "balancing factors." These factors are based on the individual's perception of the event, situational supports, and coping mechanisms. If there are elements of these three factors that lead to a reduction of tension, stress and/or anxiety, a state of equilibrium can be achieved; if they are absent, a crisis occurs.

To apply Caplan's conceptual framework on the evolution of a crisis to a terrorist incident, you must first accept the notion that all involved in the incident are dependent on each other for the outcome. All participants, the terrorist(s), hostages, and rescuers are all human organisms in a state of crisis, all prone to being responsive to similar, as well as different, balancing factors. They are all captives of the situation, all under escalating stress and tension, and all are capable of a wide range of rational or irrational responses. What factors might de-escalate the situation? Which might prove destructive? There are hundreds of choices to make and usually not enough time to examine them all. As a working guide, the following elements are seen as critical for the negotiator to consider in all terrorist situations:

Balancing Variable 1 - A Realistic Perception of the Incident

It is critical during a hostage crisis that efforts are made to create a realistic perception concerning what is happening. The terrorist(s) need to know that an immediate assault, although possible, is not being planned and that the negotiation effort is not a ruse or deception. The hostages would probably like to have some indication that everything is being done to alleviate their situation and bring them out alive. The assault or tactical element needs a constant flow of data in order to predict the terrorist(s) response to new information, and more important, someone in charge to keep them from endangering everyone in a premature, "rambo-type" assault. The principal "players" can only obtain a correct perception through a constant, accurate flow of information, and this can only be achieved by having an open communication process.

If the wrong verbal or visual message is received by any of the parties, a distorted view of what may really be happening occurs. This distorted view can evolve into an inaccurate explanation of what is going to happen next, and before you know it, you have a Waco-type incident. To better understand this process, pretend that you are totally dedicated to a particular cause. You are willing to face death in a demonstration of your beliefs, and you have taken a group of hostages. You had no desire or intention to kill if you could avoid it, but during the initial action, one of the hostages tried to take your weapon and it discharged, killing him. You were horrified by the amount of blood, the agony before death, and had to deal with the rest of the hostages, who went into such a panic that you had to fire a burst of bullets into the air to quiet them down. You are afraid, unsure of your next action, your only present concern is getting control of the situation, communicating your demands, and escaping. About this time, the police show up cordoning off the area and almost simultaneously with the police, the media also arrives. Soon the phone rings, and there is someone on the other end identifying themself as a negotiator. These events follow: the negotiator wants to know who is hurt, what you demand, assurances that you won't hurt anyone else, a request for a demonstration of good faith (so you let a few hostages go because you didn't want to hurt anyone to begin with), a tentative agreement on which of your demands can be met and which cannot (you never expected them all to be met anyway), a sequence of events to de-escalate the situation, further bargaining, and finally, assurances that you won't be harmed. You have maintained the situation long enough for the media to provide you worldwide coverage and you are ready to reach some kind of resolution. By this time, you are emotionally and physically drained, still not sure you can trust the negotiator, and somewhat anxious about the presence of armed tactical units. You have decided to surrender, when all of a sudden, you see 30 to 40 assault troops suddenly sprint toward your location, firing o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile gas, backed up by a tank. Bullets slap the walls behind your head, and suddenly you believe that all negotiation was a front for allowing the assault troops to kill you. Your fellow "patriots" were right, the "enemy" cannot be trusted, and since you are about to die, you might as well go out in a "blaze of glory." You squeeze the handle of your military charging device which sets off the blasting cap imbedded in the 100 pounds of C-4 explosive stolen from Fort Bragg, and in the twinkling of an eye, you and 20 hostages are blown to bits.

This is a mythical scenario, which unfortunately, has characterized too many hostage incidents. In analysis, you must consider what the possible conclusions might have been. Could the terrorist have just given up, or was he so willing to be a martyr that it was inevitable that he would die and take his captives with him? Distortion of the event results in confusion and creates poor choices for all involved. What might have happened to the Israeli Olympians at Munich, if negotiations had continued and there had not been a botched attack by tactical troops at the airport? No one will ever know. They might have been killed anyway, but they also might have been held hostage a little longer that was considerably better than being killed. You would think that police forces and antiterrorism and counterterrorism entities would have learned from Munich and other less famous situations. Waco, Ruby Ridge, and other recent events reinforce the fact that when it comes to applying the appropriate strategy in a terrorist situation from a historical knowledge base, we have forgotten more than we have learned. Sound too cynical? Judge for yourself.

On 2 November 1995 in Miami, a man described by coworkers as"just a wonderful person very pleasant," took 13 children and 3 adults hostage on a school bus and led police on a 25 mile chase. Claiming he had a bomb strapped to his body, hijacker Catolino Sang threatened to detonate it unless he was taken to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It was revealed that Sang was having tax problems and under a significant amount of stress. About an hour later, as the bus stopped in front of the restaurant where Sang had worked, a "special rescue team" officer fired his weapon through the windshield. They stormed the bus, and once inside, shot Sang point blank, killing him. Newspaper headlines read, "School bus hijacker dead after chase," and the media hailed the police for rescuing the children.[12]

It would serve no purpose to question the ethics of the Miami Police in this incident. Some would certainly say that Mr Sang was merely an emotionally distraught individual who had a disagreement with the IRS as tax time approached (he and 50 million others), and that he made an error in judgment which caused his unnecessary death by the Miami Police. It was unnecessary. What do you call shooting a man who has no gun, no bomb, has not harmed anyone physically, and to anyone who knows anything about terrorist behavior, is as sophisticated in his attack as Al Bundy? Maybe this judgment is too harsh. But is it irresponsible to endanger the lives of hostages as the children were in Miami? Were the children more a victim of the police than Mr Sang? During the Miami Police Department (PD), assault on the bus, children were injured by flying glass due to bullets, endangered by weapons fire, and traumatized by seeing another human being killed in front of them. How many will have post-traumatic stress disorder, or other stress-related symptoms in the years ahead, and most disturbing, what if there had been a bomb? All this tragedy supports the original observation. We still have not learned that when we resort to lethal means to stabilize a situation, we usually induce as much trauma as we attempt to avoid. The tactical approach must be a last resort, if we believe that all life is sacred, even Mr Sang's.

Balancing Variable 2 - Adequate Situational Support

A terrorist event marked by a hostage-taking action is, perhaps, one of the most confusing crisis situations a negotiator can encounter. In these situations very few individuals, even the experts, can predict how things will develop. The only thing predictable about a hostage-taking situation is that it will probably be unpredictable. The availability of adequate resources to meet all possible contingencies is paramount. These may involve hundreds of individuals, representative of many skills and professions.

Some of the resource needs are apparent. Skilled medical personnel, preferably emergency medical technicians and physicians skilled in trauma, should be on-site at all times. Pediatricians and psychiatrists are not usually needed, in addition to mental health professionals, who have historically been ill-prepared for disaster response. The same common sense must be applied to others who must be there versus those who just show up to help.

We have all witnessed the "assistance" of third parties in hostage negotiations. For example, Terry Waites efforts to free the hostages in Lebanon. There is no argument to the moral motives of Mr Waite, however, his logic in pursuing his "rescue efforts" in the face of overwhelming odds against such a pursuit merely induced another crisis when he was taken hostage. The key point to be made from this example is that when assessing possible sources of assistance, the critical goal is to select individuals or organizations which will enhance the negotiation effort and not heighten or exacerbate the situation by their presence or efforts. Good motives sometimes makes a bad situation worse, and sometimes people are killed.

One Approach To Consider - The "Patient Siege"

A few years ago, the New York City PD, under Frank Bolz and Harvey Schlossberg, coined a process concerning terrorist incidents as "time, talk, and tear gas." This concept implied that in a hostage/terrorist action, first you secure the area, post your tactical elements, and attempt to establish communications. Second, when talking fails, you employ the gas (hopefully sparing innocent bystanders). Then, if the tear gas doesn't work, the tactical teams are turned loose (usually some form of Special Weapons and Tactics).

A typical sequence of actions, in support of this approach, might be:

There are those in the antiterrorism community who disagree and use history to support their position. They use many examples to support their view that the tactical approach is the first choice. More often than not, however, the examples used are not American ones.

Which approach is really best? This is a difficult question to answer, especially in an era where a host of countries are all vying for the honor of having the most "elite" antiterrorist tactical element. The British Strategic Air Service, German GSG-9, and America's Delta, all espouse their efficiency at killing terrorists as quickly as possible without compromise. It sounds good, and definitely has the glitz and glamour to make good media headlines. What if you happen to be one of the hostages, however, when they initiate an assault? A terrorist group that has been tricked in the past will be less likely to repeat their mistakes. History has shown that terrorists learn quickly from their mistakes.

Balancing Variable 3 - Adequate Coping Mechanisms

The development of adequate coping mechanisms and strategies which enhance the reduction of situational tension is pivotal to the emotional momentum in a hostage-taking incident. These strategies may involve a wide variety of actions ranging from ensuring the hostages and terrorists have ample food and water, to psychological operations oriented to tension reduction themes (for example, playing morale-building music outside a captured embassy).

Special attention must be given to the prevention of any actions which might erode existent coping mechanisms and increase anxiety and tension. A primary goal in the recognition, development, and reinforcement of coping skills is providingwhatever is needed to assist all of the "players" in maintaining a rational response to the drama of the incident as it unfolds. Sometimes the hostages themselves may provide each other with the coping/emotional supports necessary to endure, as was the case in the U.S. Embassy incident in Tehran, Iran, in 1979.

The Balancing Variables presented are merely indicative of principal key concepts to consider as a negotiator in a hostage-taking, terrorist incident. If these variables are considered, an expeditious resolution of the incident and the gaining of a positive equilibrium may result. This, in turn, will almostcertainly minimize the nature of the crisis. A possible disaster exists from the moment a terrorist or terrorist organization initiates an incident. They have carefully planned, rehearsed, and examined all the issues associated with an action, and by the time they initiate, they have physically passed the point of no return. This doesn't mean they have passed the rationale point. Distortions of the situation perceptually, the lack of adequate coping mechanisms and/or situational supports, and an increased duration of negative behavioral/emotional equilibrium will heighten tension, create additional confusion for all involved, and more than anything else, ensure that all points of no return are passed. This is the recipe that fuels the crisis, ultimately forces tactical action, and usually culminates in further destruction, injury, and death.

Final Thoughts

As this article is closed, there are over 25,000 American servicemen and women supporting peacekeeping efforts in one of the most bloody regions of the world in recent times Bosnia. This is a war-torn region with a thousand years of ethnic/religious conflict more than 8 million land mines; numerous warring factions which have practiced ethnic genocide, assassination, indiscriminate torture, rape and abduction; and has a significant resistance to a U.S. military presence. Peace agreements, cease-fires, and political rhetoric has never stopped the General Mladics of the world from continuing murder and mayhem, and there is no reason to believe that he, nor any of the other factions in the Bosnia-Herzogovina region, will be intimidated simply because Uncle Sam is now on the block. On the contrary, one of the best ways to convince your enemies that you are invincible, is to take on the U.S. and come out intact. The probability of terrorist activity targeting American peacekeepers in not a possibility, it is the author's opinion that it is a certainty. This is supported by history and the only question is, when will an incident occur?

America has been traumatized in Beirut, Lockerby, and Oklahoma City; Germany in Munich; Italy in Bologna and Rome; Britain in Ireland; and Israel at Lod and Maalot. Countries the world over have felt the horror of terrorism and its aftermath, and more often than not, symbols of these countries have been the primary victims.

American diplomats have been murdered in Khartoum and Afghanistan, U.S. military officers in France, Greece, Lebanon, Panama, and the Philippines. American citizens have been slain in the skies over Scotland, in ships on the Mediterranean, and airports in Rome and La Guardia. More U.S. servicemen and women have been killed by terrorist attacks in the last 15 years than were killed in the Gulf War, Grenada, Haiti, Panama, and Somalia. It is a fact of the times that soldiers, diplomats, and innocent people have been, and will most likely continue to be, butcheredby merchants of terror who call themselves "peoples movements, liberation armies, and freedom fighters."

Most likely, terrorism will continue to be used as the potent weapon it is against America and Americans by our enemies. We must be prepared to counterterrorism in high-intensity and low-intensity situations, and in military and civil environments. Preparation necessitates developing skills and the ability to employ rational and effective strategies. Hopefully, the concepts presented in this article will serve as "food for thought" for those of us who may someday find ourselves involved in a terrorist incident/hostage situation. The ideas presented are certainly not new, but they reinforce a viewpoint that is supported by history and may prove to be an effective course of action.


1. The Denver Post, Terror Hits The Heartland. April 20, 1995;p 1

2. The Denver Post, Gas Makes 300 Ill in Japan. April 20, 1995;p 2

3. The Denver Post, Basque Car Bomb Injures Conservative, 16 Others. April 20, 1995;p2

4. Aguirre, J. Operation Ogro: How and Why We Executed CarerroBlanco. New York, New York: Times Book Pub; 1975.

5. Army Regulation 525-13, The Army Terrorist Counteraction Program.

6. United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Survival, Evasion, Escape/Terrorism Counteraction Department Instructor Guide. 1995;p B-2

7. Hacker FJ. Crusaders, Criminals, and Crazies: Terror and Terrorism In Our Times. New York: Norton Pub; 1976

8. Marighella, Carlos. Mini-manual of the Urban Guerrilla. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press; 1985.

9. Aguilera D, Messick J. Crisis Intervention, Theory andMethodology. St Louis MO: CV Mosby Pub; 1978.

10. San Antonio Express News, ATF, FBI Blamed For Waco Tragedy.San Antonio, TX. November 2, 1995;p 7a.

11. Caplan G. Principles of Preventive Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books Inc Pub; 1964;pp 40-41.

12. San Antonio Express News, School Bus Hijacker Dead After Chase. San Antonio, TX. November 3, 1995;pp 1-15a

Author Information:

+Medical Service Corps. LTC Pittman is Chief, Special Subjects/Programs Section, Soldier and Family Support Branch, U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School, Fort Sam Houston TX.