Hostage Recovery FAQ's

By Commander Charles “Sid” Heal
Los Angeles Sheriff’s Dept.

Without question, hostage recovery operations are the most dangerous and complex confronting modern law enforcement tactical teams. Besides the inherent peril to both hostages and police officers, they are fraught with ambiguity and confusion. Even so, they are neither inexplicable nor insoluble and this article addresses six of the most fundamental questions that must be addressed to achieve a successful resolution.

What constitutes a successful hostage recovery operation?

Hostage recovery operations generally employ one of three methods to succeed. The first is the rescue of the hostages. This simply means removing them from harm’s way. The second is the neutralization of the suspect(s). While this generally requires lethal force, less lethal options are becoming more effective and may someday prove effective. The last is to separate the hostages from the suspect(s). This is usually achieved by a tactic known as “sheltering in place” where tactical team members simply protect the hostages where they are found. Regardless of which method is chosen, the tactical concepts are much easier described than applied.

Since all civil suits attempt to redress some type of wrong or error, it is obvious that, from a plaintiff’s attorney’s point of view, the outcome requires absolute and unqualified perfection. Certainly this is ideal—it is also idealistic. In reality, almost no hostage recovery action has ever even approached this standard. Using this criterion, some of the most famous hostage rescues in history would be considered failures. The near miraculous rescue of Israeli hostages from Entebbe, Uganda, for example, resulted in the deaths of hostages, suspects and friendly forces alike. In the same manner, the recovery of hostages at Prince’s Gate, London by 22nd SAS, the rescue of passengers on the Lufthansa Airliner in Mogadishu by GSG9 and the rescue of passengers from the train by Dutch forces would also be found wanting. The fact that each of these is considered a paragon of success illustrates the reality that success is always somewhat short of perfection.

Which is better, negotiations or intervention?

One of the most frequent questions arising from hostage recovery operations is which is the better strategy, negotiations or tactical intervention? It most often occurs in a courtroom setting and it is plaintiff’s counsel asking because he is anticipating a follow-up question to make the point that more than 80% of all hostage situations are successfully resolved through negotiations. The implication is that had negotiations continued the undesirable consequences resulting in the lawsuit would never have occurred. Hence, a settlement should be awarded to the plaintiff for damages resulting from an obvious and demonstrated lack of skill, preparation, training, supervision, understanding, ad infinitum.

The question is also overly simplistic and demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of the forces in attendance during these types of operations. In the landmark decision, Downs vs. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court requires “the highest degree of care commensurate with all the facts within knowledge.” Clearly the highest court in the land is not demanding omniscience or omnipotence but rather a reasonable and logical judgment based upon the known facts. Over the years, it has been clearly demonstrated that negotiations are highly successful. Furthermore, negotiating provides tactical advantages that cannot be otherwise attained, such as preparation time, intelligence gathering, target identification and threat assessments. Refusing to negotiate then becomes not only irrational but indefensible.

Notwithstanding, for many years, a school of thought has purported that it is always better to negotiate and that negotiations should continue until there is an indisputable failure such as the death of a hostage or some irrational act of the suspect. Proponents of this strategy point to the percentage of success and the fact that “words never hurt or killed anyone.” On face value there is much to substantiate this point of view. But again, the concept proves easier to understand than apply.

Adopting a strategy of “always” anything is fraught with assumptions and speculation. In this case, it first assumes a rational actor. This means that the suspect is capable of understanding the reasonable consequences of his actions. Since many hostage takers are under the influence of drugs, alcohol or mentally deficient, this factor can not be fully evaluated until the specific circumstances are known. Second, it assumes meaningful negotiations. Just because a suspect is rational does not mean that he is willing to negotiate. This is particularly acute when dealing with terrorists, habitual offenders facing long prison terms or the death penalty or suspects with suicidal tendencies. Third, it means that opportunities to resolve the incident tactically must be ignored. This is critical in that there is no guarantee of another opportunity presenting itself. Fourth, the commander must accept some risk to the hostages because ignoring any opportunity to resolve the problem resigns the hostages to continued peril and the opportunity is forever forfeited. Fifth, the underlying logic relies on statistical percentages. While this is understandable and justifiable, it also assumes that the circumstances in the present instance are the same as the successful ones in the past. Like any gamble, it is mostly “playing the odds.” Last, it requires a failure to proceed. If a tactical intervention can not be executed until negotiations fail, failure is required to proceed. A tactical intervention is forced to be conducted in extremis. Any strategy that requires a failure to progress is inherently deficient.

In the same manner, preference for a tactical intervention carries its own assumptions. First, the commander must accept risk to both the hostages and the tactical team members. Hostage rescue tactics are extremely dangerous and, because perfection is out of the question, risk of failure is intrinsic. Second, she will be forever second-guessed as to whether negotiations would have proven effective. Consequently, it virtually guarantees criticism. Third, while a negotiation failure will probably not thwart a tactical intervention, a tactical failure makes further meaningful negotiations all but impossible. Fourth, the odds do favor negotiation. Considering the probabilities is a viable and prudent course of action.

By now it can be clearly seen that “always” anything is not only impractical, it is impossible. Likewise, and for the same reasons, “never” is just as preposterous. The answer lies in using everything that is known about a situation and making a decision based upon the particular circumstances presented. This will require assumptions. It will require acceptance of risk, regardless of which course of action is chosen. It will require making hard decisions based upon incomplete, ambiguous, unreliable and even conflicting pieces of information. This is why a thorough knowledge of the issues involved and the influences in play are so critical.

In adopting an effective strategy for hostage recovery operations we must accept that both negotiations and interventions are viable and equal. They do not compete. Negotiators and tactical team members must be fully cognizant of the roles they each play in the ultimate attainment of operational objectives.

How is a hostage recovery operation different than others?

The biggest difference is that the focus of effort is on the hostages not the suspect. This means that the predominant activity or assignment that must be accomplished to achieve a successful resolution is the safe recovery of the hostages. While capture of the suspect is sought, the circumstances may not allow it. Thus, depending on the situation, this may necessitate allowing the suspect to escape or even killing him in order to protect the hostages.

Another difference is that when hostages are present, operational planning is typically conducted in reverse. For instance, while most tactical interventions are planned from the entry to the suspect, in hostage recovery operations the planning is done from the hostages to a position of safety. Even if the hostages can not be immediately rescued, once their safety can be assured the entire tone and tenor of the operation changes. The hostage taker is of secondary importance and, while he presents the major obstacle to success, he is not the cynosure.

In planning hostage recovery operations, it is important to understand that the hostage, in and of himself, has no value to the hostage taker except as a tool or device to get what he wants from authorities. Furthermore, because no hostage taker has the ability to win a “stand up” fight with the authorities, it is just as much in his interest not to let a situation turn violent. Once hostages are released, recovered or killed, the hostage taker loses much of his ability to bargain and the tactical situation is dramatically simplified. In addition, “tried and true” tactics and tools that are usually precluded when hostages are present, such as chemical agents, can quickly cause a barricaded suspect to surrender.

Why not just “wait him out?”

Plaintiff’s attorneys frequently attack an operational plan simply because it didn’t seem that enough time was taken. To the more casual observer, time is always an ally. In reality, time is neither an ally nor an adversary.

Tactical operations, of any kind, are dynamic and time sensitive. They are dynamic in the sense that they are characterized by continuous change. Thus, a decision delayed is often rendered ineffective because the circumstances necessitating it will have changed. Further, doing nothing is also not an option because the situation will continue to evolve with or without attempts to achieve a satisfactory resolution. Because hostage situations naturally tend to gravitate toward disorder and unacceptable consequences, some intervention is always required. Even more critical with time is the fact that hostage situations are adversarial in nature. This means that these operations are not only time sensitive but are time competitive. They always involve an opposing will in the form of one or more human beings who are attempting to attempting to gain an advantage of some sort. Time abandoned or ignored by one side can be exploited by the other.

In hostage situations, time is not as critical as opportunity. Opportunities in tactical situations tend to be elusive, sporadic and fleeting. They are elusive in that they are seldom clear and unequivocal but rather difficult to define, describe or anticipate. They are sporadic in the sense that they occur at irregular intervals without any pattern or order and are often isolated from predictable precursors. They are fleeting because they pass quickly. Consequently, time may provide for opportunities, but ignoring an opportunity usually requires that it be abandoned forever. An irony exists in that many opportunities appear during the earlier stages of hostage situations when chaos and confusion are the dominating influences. It is during this period that suspects are most often surprised and hostages attempt to escape.

How do the hostages fit into the overall plan?

One of the most overlooked aspects of hostage situations is that hostages are not inanimate objects but active participants. They are never passive. While it is a common negotiating tactic to deny or ignore their value, their actions must always be considered. Furthermore, hostages are not equal. Some are more helpless than others. Children for example, are especially vulnerable because of their natural inclination to follow the instructions of any adult figure and they almost never attempt to escape. Furthermore, they are immature and my not act rationally. Likewise, the elderly and infirm are also more defenseless because of a decreased ability to protect themselves and/or escape. In contrast, hostages who do have an ability to protect themselves or escape, often do so. Sometimes a successful recovery operation can be achieved by creating conditions which hostages can exploit and remove themselves from danger. Conversely, because of a human coping mechanism called the Stockholm Syndrome, hostages may also actively support the hostage taker(s) and interfere with rescue attempts. Regardless of the type of hostage, the key concept is that the actions of the hostages must always be considered and incorporated into the plan.

What conditions favor a tactical intervention?

It is important to remember that “chance favors preparation.” This principle is particularly relevant in hostage recovery operations. Some preparatory measures, such as training and coordination issues, must be done days, weeks or even months in advance. Others are “situation dependent” in that they are contingent on the unique circumstances present at the time a decision to intervene tactically must be made. Of these, four factors are critical in hostage rescue attempts. First, the floor plan should be known. Generally, it is the complexity of the floor plan and not the size of the building that determines the size of the entry team as well as where and how they enter and move. Second, sufficient personnel must be available to dominate all areas of threat in the shortest available time. Recognizing that establishing control will never be instantaneous, excessive times create unacceptable risks. Third, the hostages must be able to be protected within 60 seconds after intervention is discovered. While this is not a hard fast rule, the peril to hostages is greater over time. Further, the “60 second rule” begins not when the entry is initiated but when it is discovered. Thus a stealth entry may precede a dynamic entry by minutes or even hours. Last, the entry team must be staged so as to be able strike within ten seconds of a predetermined signal or event. Only a quick response provides an ability to exploit fleeting opportunities.

Because opportunity, not time, is the critical factor for a successful hostage recovery operation, it is imperative that they are recognized when they occur. Inasmuch as opportunities take on a myriad of forms, no comprehensive description is possible but some occur frequently enough in hostage situations that they merit mention. First, when the suspect has killed a hostage, particularly as a result of a self-imposed “deadline” there is a short period of psychological disruption that should be immediately exploited when possible. Second, and for the same reasons, when a hostage has escaped. Third, when the suspect has dozed off or fallen asleep. This occurs often than you might think because most criminal and mentally insane hostage takers (as opposed to terrorists) do not possess an ability to simultaneously guard the hostages and protect themselves. Last, whenever the suspect(s) has tactically handicapped himself in some manner. This may be as simple as a suspect moving away from the hostages who can then be protected in some manner or as the result of a ruse, ploy, diversion or more complicated tactic.

These six questions will present themselves in some form in every hostage incident. Furthermore, you can be absolutely assured that they will be asked in the resulting criminal and civil actions. An understanding of their impact and an ability to articulate their influences is essential for both determining and defending tactical decisions and actions.

The second figure illustrates the equal partnership shared by the negotiation and tactical components. Because opportunity and not time is the controlling influence, any viable option can be exploited by either negotiators or tactical team members to achieve success. Like a “twisted pair” electrical wire, they are not only both oriented in the same direction but intertwined and inseparable.

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