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Hostage Negotiations and Terrorism Part One
By William Sturgeon
Published: 06/27/2011

Hostage Corrections.com received an email asking if there was a definitive training program on hostage negotiations. When contacted by the people at corrections.com, I was quick to answer yes, there are several good hostage negotiations training programs. My long time friend, Joe Marchese, has taught hostage negotiations for over 35 years and he is a person whom I consider to be an expert on the topic.

Post September 11, 2001, we were forced to re-think and re-tool most of our operational policies and procedures. I began to search the Internet looking for new hostage negotiations courses and/or hostage cases where terrorists took hostages.

Most of the materials I found were dated training materials. These courses included techniques for hostage negotiations that I taught when I was an academy instructor.

Most of the US government materials stressed the philosophy of “We do not negotiate with terrorists”, and “We do not release prisoners as part of negotiating with terrorists, etc., etc.”

Being the type of “Nitti / Gritty” person that I am, I was looking for specific procedural / operational recommendations. Again, all I found was that we do not negotiate with hostage takers and/or terrorists.

I took a break to watch a documentary Terror In Mumbai , an HBO Special. As I watched this documentary, I realized that corrections must take a step back and look at today’s current realities.

In reality there are terrorists in prisons all over the world, to include America. They have friends who want to break them out of prison, and the techniques that worked in the past perhaps, will not work now or in the future. Another reality is that if there is an incident at a prison, there is a good chance that there will be another incident going on somewhere else (in that facility) that will draw resources and create more confusion.

The possibility of correctional personnel and/or visitors being taken hostage has always existed and most correctional agencies are prepared to manage these traditional situations.

The reality today is that the hostage takers could be terrorists, not criminals. (I believe that there is a distinct difference between the two – Topic for another blog.) Terrorist-hostage takers have demonstrated over and over their readiness to kill their hostages as well as their own willingness to die for their cause. In the Beslan School Hostage Crisis (Russia), 344 civilians died during the incident. Some of the victims, who were children, were raped, tortured and murdered.

I believe that these factors alone require that criminal justice agencies across the nation establish different tactics and strategies for dealing with terrorist-hostage takers.

The question now is, how many local criminal justice agencies have even thought of preparing a plan to deal with terrorist-hostage takers?

A terrorist-hostage taking situation can happen in a correctional facility, school, police station, shopping mall, and/or hospital. It can happen in any sized community as it did in Beslan, Russia.

Being an old emergency planner and operations person, I thought about the differences that a terrorist/ hostage situation would manifest. This is the list I developed:
  • In the majority of cases, the terrorist -hostage takers are willing to die for their causes and/or beliefs.
  • Many of the terrorist- hostage takers have received military training.
  • Many terrorist-hostage takers have received training in bomb making using household products. Also, they have received training in how to make Improvised Explosive Devices (I.E.D.)
  • Some terrorist-hostage takers believe that by killing the hostages and themselves, they will receive additional media coverage and be rewarded in the afterlife.
  • Some of the terrorist-hostage takers have received training in (counter) negotiating techniques. (Be aware that the terrorist-hostage takers may be playing games and stalling for time.)
  • Terrorist-hostage takers will stretch-out the situation as long as possible so that they can gain as much publicity as possible.
  • Terrorist-hostage takers have been known to create multiple incidents so as to exhaust and confuse authorities.

Each of the above issues I believe have various degrees of separation from the traditional (criminal/prisoner) hostage taker. If one goes back and reviews traditional hostage situations, it is easy to see that there are certain similarities for traditional correctional hostage situations:
  • Mentally ill inmate (s)
  • Foiled escape
  • Living conditions
    • Healthcare
    • Inmate safety
    • Food
    • Abusive treatment by staff
    • Cleanliness of living areas, etc.
  • In an effort to escape by taking a staff member (s) hostage.
  • The traditional inmate (s) has no desire to die, unlike the terrorist-hostage takers.

Suggestions – Tactics to Consider

The following suggestions and points to consider have been developed from research that I have done. I have tried to examine terrorist-hostage incidents to determine what I would have done if I were in-charge.
  • Contain the incident as quickly as possible.
  • Determine if the hostage-takers have a terrorist background.
  • As quickly as possible, have Special Response Team (s) respond to the incident with appropriate equipment and weapons.
  • Immediately start to determine a plan for assaulting the terrorist-hostage takers. In other hostage situations, the terrorist-hostage takers have been know to kill or torture the hostage right at the beginning of the incident. (Correctional facilities, hospitals, malls, justice centers such as jails and courthouses, should have pre-arranged assault plans for every area of the facilities.)
  • As quickly as possible, set-up video recording equipment, listening devices, etc., in an effort to gain as much “real life / real time” intelligence on what the terrorist-hostage takers are talking about, planning, and how they are treating the hostages.
  • As quickly as possible, determine the primary and a secondary assault plan.
  • Have at least two comprehensive escape plans in the event things go wrong.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected. (Terrorist-hostage takers may have set booby traps or other devices or employ techniques to injure, kill or capture members of the assault team. Yes, they would capture members of the assault team and add them and their radios and other equipment to the bounty.)
  • Use a variety of technologies to observe the terrorist-hostage takers to determine:
    • Their strength
    • Their (Weapons being used)
    • The number of hostages (Try to identify agency personnel)
    • Their location (s) (Be specific)
    • Possible traps (Look for booby traps)
    • Lighting (Use lighting as a weapon)
    • Locked doors
    • Their primary and secondary assault plans
    • Their escape plan (s)
  • The assault should include:
    • Diversion (s)
    • Speed
    • A well trained team (s) carrying out the assault
    • Appropriate weapons, less than lethal if necessary. Lethal weapons if justified.
    • Lethal weapons (snipers etc.) give cover from external areas.
  • Ancillary personnel assembly area (s) (Do not have all of the emergency personnel assembled in one spot, because then they become a target.)
    • Fire service
    • Ambulance (EMS)
    • Hospital on alert for mass causalities
    • Other law enforcement /correctional personnel
  • Establish a security perimeter around the assembly area (s)
  • The facility personnel should use all of its utility resources, such as HVAC, water, lighting, sound, toilets, to give it the edge and keep the terrorist hostage takers off guard and to disrupt their plans.

The possibility of terrorist-hostage takers in today’s world is very real. The purpose of this article is to have agencies think about how they would deal with hostage incidents where terrorists are the hostage takers.

In several of the incidents that I researched for this article, it became clear to me that terrorist-hostage takers are mentally, emotionally and psychologically prepared to kill the hostages. Knowing this in advance should alert agencies to have a rapid response plan.

Part Two of this of this article will address the following areas:
  • External influences
  • Perimeter
  • Over response

Visit the Bill Sturgeon page

Other articles by Sturgeon:


  1. shelley bhowmick on 07/28/2011:

  2. shelley bhowmick on 07/28/2011:

  3. shelley bhowmick on 07/28/2011:

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