Strategies against hostage takers, Game Theory

Strategies against Hostage Takers

Typical Situations

Terrorists: usually have several hostages, demands are polit- ical, may be fanatics, location may be public or secret, local or foreign

Prison riots: guards as hostages, demands for improved conditions

Kidnapping for ransom: usually a single hostage, demands monetary, usually calculatingly rational, location secret

Policy to Deter Hostage Taking

When asked what policy the government should announce in advance, there is general agreement that the government should declare that it would never negotiate. This gets at the idea of a commitment. But when an actual incident is de- picted, with the hostages' relatives' appearing on TV news asking what the government is going to do, most students recognize that the government would abandon its policy and negotiate. This at once brings home the idea of credibility or lack thereof. (For a film version of such a situation, you can use the example of Harrison Ford in Air Force One.) But one or two students in the class generally argue for being tough even though this means the loss of some lives. Discuss this for a while, and bring out the idea that in different countries and at different times, political and social norms differ and hanging tough may be feasible in some cases but not others. The current U.S. setting makes it particularly difficult for the authorities to act tough.

The terrorists may take advantage of the pressure that media and relatives can create by taking hostages most likely to arouse sympathy-the old, the sick, and children.

Some suggestions to enhance the credibility of a tough stance or the reputation of a government trying to take such a stance: (1) Stage a fake incident and resolve it with the terrorists giving in. This may do more harm than good if the truth leaks out. (2) Give the power to retaliate into the hands of an independent bureau or organization like the army. (This leans toward brinkmanship, which is covered in Chap- ter 13.) But in the United States there are always civilian overrides. (3) Make laws that punish anyone who communi- cates or deals with terrorists. But again someone or some group can override such laws in a good cause. Thus there is no really good solution in open democratic societies; totalitarian ones have an advantage in this regard.

There is a distinction between terrorism and kidnapping: With the latter, the victim's relatives can capitulate against the government's wishes. The government can try to prevent them from doing so, for example, by freezing their assets. But then in future incidents the relatives may settle secretly without ever notifying the authorities. (It was pointed out that kidnappers would make a mistake by choosing a victim who has sole control over the assets from which the ransom is to be paid; better for them to take the dependent spouse or child of such a person.)

Even if it seems likely that the government will negotiate when an actual incident occurs, there is some uncertainty, and the policy announcement may serve to deter some of the milder or less fanatical potential terrorists.


Several issues arise and each situation has its special features. In one sense the terrorists or kidnappers start out with an advantage; they choose the time and location and are better organized. But governments also prepare and train teams to handle such situations. Some terrorist groups also have a repu- tation for toughness or fanaticism, while some governments have the opposite reputation.


If the location is one where the authorities control the food and water supply, and the terrorists have limited numbers, time is on the government's side. Then the authorities may simply seal the place, prevent media coverage, and wait it out. They will certainly try to draw out negotiations, for ex- ample invoke the need to refer decisions to higher levels, and use salami tactics. The aim is to exhaust the terrorists' physical and mental stamina and to get a much better deal from them. The terrorists, who are using a compellent threat, must impose a deadline. They can force the issue with limited violence: torture or killing some hostages every day or hour. (Killing all the hostages is not rational, but irrationality or brinkmanship may be used.) Terrorists' violence runs the risk of invoking an irrational tough response from the public or the government.

If the location is secret or under the terrorists' or their sympathizers' control, if the terrorists have the advantage of numbers, control of food, and so on, and if the pressure on the government is great, then the roles are reversed. The ter- rorists can wait patiently as the government makes concessions or deals.


The government can get a better bargain using counterthreats, for example to bomb the terrorists' camp or country. But then one terrorist group can get revenge on a rival group by acting using its name and invoking such reaction against it.

Terrorists' demands typically include publicity for their cause, release of their comrades in jail, substantive political concessions, and always safe passage for themselves after the incident is over. They hold several hostages. The package can then be split into a series of small steps, facilitating the buildup of mutual confidence in the bargaining process. Thus some hostages (sick, elderly, women, children) can be released in exchange for publicity or partial release of prisoners.

Similar bargaining can occur with kidnappers: the family of the victim can claim that its assets are illiquid, so it can only meet part of the demand without excessive delay. The kidnappers can try to force the issue by torturing or muti- lating the victim, but they must periodically send out evidence that the victim is alive.


This can happen when the negotiations approach or reach an endgame.

If there is a partial release of hostages, the authorities can debrief them for information about the terrorists (their num- bers, weapons, state of mind), about the numbers and condi- tion of the remaining hostages, and about the physical layout of the location. This increases the chances of a successful rescue operation. Hostages who get out alive can also help identify their holders for later arrest or trial. Therefore it is in the mutual interest of the terrorists and the hostages that the terrorists be masked or the victims blindfolded.

The problem of a double cross is at its most serious after the hostages are released and it only remains for the govern- ment to fulfill its promise of safe passage to the terrorists. Should the government renege and kill the terrorists or shoot down their escape plane? If the government does this, it might serve to deter future hostage taking; however, if there is a positive probability that some fanatics will do similar things in the future anyway, then this precedent will make it much harder to negotiate with them.

Posted Date: 9/27/2012 5:49:20 AM | Location : United States

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