Before and beyond the Algerian incident: empirical findings on hostage taking

With the „hostage debacle in Algeria — which killed 23 oil workers and 32 hostages, and ended in a fiery assault — international energy companies operating in the region are left grappling with an urgent question: Can they keep their personnel safe amid the region’s political upheaval amplified by the conflict in Mali, where French forces have intervened to stop government forces being overrun by jihadist militants?“ This paragraph quoted from an introductory feature in Time poses a serious question with strong validity generally for western companies operating in crisis regions and  has been valid irrespectively of the current events since the hostage crises related to PLO-activities in the 1970s, a still ongoing abduction business in Colombia, and, of course, the islamist attacks, that are linked to the Al Qaeda-franchise starting in the late 1990s.

After several decades of terrorism research: what do we know empirically about hostage taking and kidnapping incidents in a terrorist context?

We know quite a lot in terms of modus operandi (MO) and „demographics of hostage taking events“ due to open source and freely searchable databases such as RAND´s „Database of worldwide terrorism incidents“ (currently with valid data spanning the time 1972-2009) as well as due to databases not open to the public but with relevant coverage of inhouse analyses of these data, such as the database set-up by the „Institute for the Study of violent Groups“ (ISVG-database).

Additionally, there is an intense scientific debate, chronicled e.g., in journals like „Terrorism and political Violence„. Research distinguishes four principal MOs of political abductions:

  • Clandestine abduction and bargaining: According to this method, the terror organization abducts hostages and holds them in a hideaway. The adversary only learns of the abduction subsequently, after the kidnappers and the hostages have been hidden at a “safe place”. Clandestine abduction and bargaining has been quite common in Afghanistan, Iraq as well as in Gaza (Hamas), Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Yemen.
  • Overt abductions and bargaining: In this scenario the terror organization takes over hostages in a building or seizes alternatively a means of transportation. A short time after taking over the hostages or sometimes during that process, security entities become aware of the terror activity and begin to contend with it. Duration of negotiations is shorter than in a covert abduction. Rapid decision-making is necessary, often under time-pressure and media-coverage.
  • Capture and negotiation attacks: In this case, a terror cell seizes a private or public building and holds the individuals populating that building hostage. Negotiation are conducted with the authorities in order to achieve its goals in exchange for the hostages´ release. Mega-attacks such as the theater raid in Moscow some years ago or the Beslan hijacking of a school in North Austia constitute past capture and negotiation attacks.
  • The seizure of transportation means: hijacking transportation means that it is possible to capture a relatively large number  of hostages; the hostages are held in relatively small area and under crowded conditions, which makes it difficult to rescue them; as long as the means of transportation is mobile it is almost impossible to conduct a rescue attack. Well known seizures of transportation means are Fatah’s attack at the Savoy Hotel in 1975, the sea-jacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985 and the PFLP airplane hijackings in the 1970s.

From Yun´s 2008 study of the ISVG-data (N= 764 cases of hostage-taking) some behavioral observations can be drawn:

  • Demographics: 31,2 % of hostages safely released, 21,3 % killed by hostage takers, 4,2 % rescued by Government forces, 1,4 % Escape, 0,9% accidentally killed during rescue attempt, 0,3 % killed during hostage taking attempt. Not unexpectedly the beginning and the end of a hostage situation are especially dangerous phases.
  • Hostage taking groups with more experience on hostage taking and kidnapping tend to more likely execute their hostages then least experienced hostage taking groups.
  • If a hostage is a foreigner rather than a domestic, chance of safe release increases.
  • Hostage taking groups based on religion are considerably more likely to execute their hostages than non-religion hostage taking groups!

What should companies do?

Apart from large multinationals operating in conflict zones, who have set-up their own security architecture, often with intense PMC-support, many firms, especially SMEs, practice not much more than strict denial. There is very often – at least in Germany – only very limited contingency planning and almost no preparation for the experience of high-stress-situations such as being taken taken as hostage or trainings to foster psychological resilience during an extended crisis.

Analysis of open source empirical data on N= 116 abduction cases of foreigners in Iraq and Afghanistan from 200 to 2008 we have carried out in 2009, shows that while a minority of foreign abductees did not survive (18 % killed in Afghanistan, 27 % killed in Iraq – including a period of aggressive targeting of foreigners), hostages were released after a mean period of 28 days (Afghanistan) respectively 17 days (Iraq) of captivity with this timespan rising rapidly over the analysis period in both countries reaching about 40 days in 2008.

Firms sending expats into regions of potentials crisis do have a responsibility to adress political risks and to prepare expats for such hardships, especially, as we know from resilience research that this kind of information does not scare away any participant but allows for a far better preparation if a hostage crisis really unfolds!

Apart from a sound preparation for expats decision makers themselves would largely benefit from emergency taskforce training. In a very limited sense familiarization with the not-so-pleasant aspects of a region and their „political mechanics“ might be helpful as a first step. So starting with tabletop conflict simulations such as „Andean Abyss“ or „A distant Plain“ (forthcoming in 2013) might be a promising approach for developing sensibility as well.


Fassbender, P. & Jertz, W. (2012). Sicherheit: was erwarten Expats von ihren Arbeitgebern? Personal Manager. HR International. Fachzeitschrift für Auslandsentsendung. Zwei Teile in den Heften 2 und 3/2012.

Faure, G.O. & Zartmann, I.W. (2010). Negotiating with terrorists. Strategy, tactics, and politics. London: Routledge.

Yun, M. (2008). Understanding global terrorist hostage taking and kidnapping. Saarbrücken: VDM.