Violence against hostages – an analysis of 12 cases of hostage-taking, 2007-2017
Taking people hostage for financial or political gain is almost as old as history itself1. While it has always been unpleasant to be held hostage, the dynamics of hostage taking has changed over the years. For example, increasing use of smartphones and internet in general and among hostage takers in specific has made the hostage business both more volatile, much faster and has made pictures and videos of hostages more widespread2.
In recent years, much media attention has been focused on the extreme violence and brutality displayed by hostage takers in the Middle East. The beheadings of several hostages by the Islamic State in 2014 has been on the cover of newspapers and as breaking news in television as violence makes good headlines3. The extreme violence and brutality against hostages taken by pirates of the coast of Somalia or in Syria by ISIS may lead to the belief that all hostages are exposed to violence during captivity. However, less research on hostage taking has been devoted to exploring how, why and how often physical violence against hostages takes place and how hostages have dealt with it4.
This article seeks to provide a brief overview of the extent of violence and the circumstances hostages are exposed to by their captors, thereby adding details and insights to the dynamics of hostage situations. Drawing on experience from 12 cases involving 24 Danish hostages in the period 2007-2017 this article will analyze the reasons why some hostages are exposed to violence and identify potential mitigation techniques. While researching the subject it became clear that the lack of available data restrains the project. Firstly, the 12 identified cases, which forms the foundation for this project, are by no means exhaustive, as many cases likely remain unknown to the public. Secondly, the nature of the subject means that much information and many details of the cases that are known to public are hard to obtain. Therefore, this essay relies primarily on cases where it has been possible to interview former hostages in order to improve the validity of the findings. The study will inform both professionals dealing with hostage negotiation and crisis management, organizations providing hostage survival training and the wider public. The insights provided may help negotiators understand the dynamics of the physical threat against the persons they are trying to be released. Further, as support to relatives is part of most crisis management, professionals may use this information to limit the uncertainty experienced by the relatives by relating to other similar cases. Finally, hostage survival training and similar training programs such as hostile environment awareness training (HEAT-courses) may be qualified by including knowledge on violence and the associated coping strategies.
This article will clarify the use of the terms “violence” and “captivity”.
Violence in this paper, is understood as any kind of human-inflicted physical pain or discomfort on the captive inflicted by the captor(s). This excludes pain inflicted by other factors (e.g. cold weather or self-inflicted pain). However, it does not distinguish between pain inflicted on purpose and pain as a coincidence. This is partly due to the fact that it is very hard to prove/disprove if the violence is intentional or merely due to e.g. lack of caution during transportation of the captives. Furthermore, the use of violence has no lower level in regard of the present paper. Pushing and rough handling that, in other situations or cultural settings, might be regarded as too weak to be termed violence has in this paper been included based on the subjective description of the former hostages rather than a more clinical objective definition of violence. The focus on physical violence does not exclude that psychological violence such as threats; intimidation or manipulation may form a substantive part of the unpleasant exposure in a hostage situation. The psychological challenges in captivity however have been dealt with elsewhere5 6. Further, as can be seen from the cases listed below, it is both the psychological implications and the physical implications of physical violence that makes the physical violence a severe issue. Often, the psychological aftermath of having been held hostage stays with the person longer than it takes for the physical wounds to heal.
The term hostage in this paper, refers to any person held by non-state actors against his or her will and where some kind of negotiation or demand has played a pivotal role in the resolution of the case. This excludes detention by law enforcement agencies abroad and shorter cases of captivity that are (re)solved without external intervention.
Data and method:
A total of 12 cases, including a total of 24 hostages, have been identified and works as the empirical data for this research project. All cases have been selected by the following criteria:
- All cases took place between 2007 and 2017. This criterion has been set in order to ensure that the project provides a picture of the current situation and not merely a historic overview with less relevance for present conditions.
- In order to improve the validity of the findings, cases, where first hand interviews have been possible, have been prioritized. Given the author’s geographical location in Denmark and access to Danish sources, only Danish citizens will appear in this study, both those who have been interviewed for this project, and those retrieved from books, news articles and similar. The selection of Danish cases limits the amount of possible cases and data to be analyzed as otherwise several thousand cases should have been included7. For a discussion on the possibility to generalize the findings to other nationalities, please see the discussion.
Regardless of the strict selection of cases, the cases display a variety of regions, type of captor and professions. A full overview of the cases can be found in table 1.
The total number of cases and hostages may be higher due to unreported figures. Many cases only become publicly known after a while, and thus, a case from e.g. 2016 may at present yet be unknown. Further, some cases may - due to their sensitive nature - remain a secret to all but those, who were involved in the case. As some of the cases remain sensitive, some details are hidden in this paper and some cases will be presented anonymously for the sake of the former hostage. The identified former hostages have been interviewed in semi-structured interviews. When interview with former hostage have not been possible, other sources such as media reporting and books have been used. Based on the available data, each case has been analyzed in-depth and the findings are presented below:
In the following, the key findings in relation to the various types of violence identified are presented.
Violence: The moment of capture and rough handling
In most of the cases, violence appears immediately after the moment of capture. The violence is often rough handling like pushing, lighter beatings and tough grips during movement combined with blindfolding. It appears that the hostages are often shocked to find themselves captured and that the violence is merely part of many unpleasant factors such as disorientation, confusion, disbelief, fear of the unknown etc. whilst the reasons for violence during capture is unclear two factors do appear to be of importance:
- The hostage takers often appear nervous and stressed during this initial phase adding tension to the situation and their treatment of the hostages.
- The perceived need to act rough on the hostages to show domination in order to avoid hostages fighting back or causing further trouble for the hostage takers.
Most hostages have handled the situation by showing that they pose no threat to the hostage takers (hands in the air) and that they will obey orders. Further, many have been convinced that the rough handling and violence will cease once the situation calms down, which often has been the case.
In some cases, however, the general treatment of the hostages is continuously violent and harsh. There seems to be a geographical difference where hostages in the Middle East are more likely to experience continued harsh treatment whereas the hostages in the two cases from Ukraine were treated less violently even though the (perceived) threat persisted. Often, the rough treatment stems from individual guards and a coping strategy has been to simply avoid confrontation with those guards and employ a deescalating posture and attitude, as seen by most hostages in Syria. An example of exposure to persisting violent behavior is the case of Jeppe Nybroe, where rough handling appeared to be an integrated part of the culture in the specific group of hostage takers. This is underlined by the observation that the hostage takers behaved violently not only towards the hostages but also between each other. On the other hand, in most of the cases the guards have not been hostile and violent towards the hostages.
Main factors of violence during captivity
At least 7 out of the 12 cases involve violence in connection with negotiations. While the captors are on the phone with negotiators (either a professional negotiator, friends or family of the hostage) violence in the form of beating with fists or tools is seen; most likely to apply pressure to the negotiators as a part of a negotiation strategy. In the case of Jeppe Nybroe, the leading captor held the negotiator directly responsible for the beating of Jeppe Nybroe with a whip. The beating followed a (according to the hostage taker) disappointingly low proposed sum for the release of Jeppe Nybroe. Even though the hostage taker did come across as genuinely disappointed, his actions also appeared to be part of a planned setup conducted in a concerted effort to raise the sum. The coping strategies used by the hostages to handle such a situation differ. Some have agreed with their captors to play along and act as if they are beaten while on the phone with a negotiator. This has - however - never been on the first contact, but has been seen in subsequent contacts on the phone. Another coping strategy has been to view the violence and the negotiations as a proof that things are going in the right direction and thus mentally accepting what is happening. This has been the case, where increasing levels of violence has been an indicator of successful completion of negotiations and subsequent release.
There are only few examples of violence being used as a tool to extract information from hostages. Daniel Rye, a Danish photographer captured in Syria, was during the first three weeks of his captivity exposed to extreme and systematic torture by means of a variety of tools and methods. The official explanation was the need on behalf of his captors to establish his identity. However, the aim might as well simply have been to break him mentally. The prolonged torture is - however horrible for the individual exposed to it - rather rare.
In some cases, hostage takers have appeared to give hostages a rough handling due to boredom. This behaviour has occurred when several guards are present and often younger guards have developed an internal group dynamic where the actions of one guard leads to others attempting to be more daring or violent. This appears to be happening without the knowledge or approval of the leader of the hostage-taker-group, and where a positive personal relation between the captors and the captives have not developed.
This kind of violence can be combined with plays or competitions (e.g. who of the hostages can handle a plastic bag over the head for the longest period of time?). On one hand, the coping strategy has been a balance between accepting what is happening in order to avoid provocation of the guards to avoid being picked out for further “entertainment” and on the other hand to make the violent play as nonviolent and boring as possible.
The above list mentions the most prevalent causes for violence as experienced by the hostages. Several other causes exists, the one most often mentioned is no cause at all, where the hostage is unaware of the reasons for the violence he/she is exposed to. While the above account sub-divides the individual reason for violence, in reality a combination of reasons is more likely. Further, no hostages are exposed to violence continuously throughout their ordeal – conversely one hostage describes the daily routine as a hostage to consist of 23 hours of waiting and boredom and 1 hour of intense violent negotiation.
Strategies to deal with violence in captivity
Being exposed to violence in captivity is a severe and real threat and to all hostages in this research project, the violent situations stand out in memory and are remembered often in greater detail than other situations from the period of captivity. The examples of violent behaviour by the hostage takers described above almost all have in common, that it is the way the hostage taker perceives the situation and need for violence, that determines if and what kind of violence is applied. As demonstrated, however, the hostages are rarely passive spectators to what is going on, but rather play an active role in the unfolding. The hostage might therefore just as well consider his or her options to cope with and influence their own situation through influencing the perception and the behaviour of the hostage takers. The problem-focused20 coping strategies developed above appear to depend on the specific situation and the reason for violent behavior.
In case of violence in the moment of capture and violence in relation to negotiations, the hostage may be well served with removing the need for captor to use violence, i.e. to adopt a deescalating posture and behavior and to cooperate positively to the negotiations. In case of violence as a background noise or violence for fun, it is harder for the captive to remove the cause for violence, as there appears to be no specific reason for this. The coping mechanism therefore appears to focus on avoidance of the violent guards and/or developing a positive personal relation to the captors. As an emotion-focused strategy the mere acceptance of the fact that violence may happen, seems to be of some aid. The applied coping strategies may be of particular interest to those providing hostage survival training or HEAT (Hostile Environment Awareness) Training. The majority of western militaries run POWEX (Prisoner of War Exercise) or CAC (Conduct after Capture) courses for their deployed troops, where knowledge on coping strategies may be useful.
The likelihood of violence seems to depend largely on the individual captor or group of captors and on Geography, as violence appears to be more prevalent in the Middle East. This corresponds well with existing research, showing that for example execution rates of hostages are higher among (Muslim) jihadist groups than among other hostage takers21. A more general advice for hostages may therefore be to be aware of the dynamic and volatile situation during captivity and to pay special attention to the character of the individual hostage takers.
While it is difficult to estimate whether an alternative coping strategy would have worked better or worse than the above mentioned it nevertheless appears that the strategies applied have had some effect. Even though all cases are Danish, it would be possible to generalize from these cases to cases involving other nationalities. While some nationalities face specific problems in captivity (British and American hostages held by the Islamic State have been treated differently and somewhat harsher than their French, Spanish or Danish peers) the overall problem of dealing with violent hostage takers appears to be identical and the coping strategies thus appear to be universally applicable. Further, even though some organizations (e.g. the Islamic State and precursors) have a marked tendency of executing military hostages, on a broader perspective, the treatment of civilians and military hostages does not appear to differ22.
Violence of some severity is likely during captivity, though not necessarily with fatal consequences. The hostages have had some possibility to influence their own situation depending on the specific setting. The identified mitigation strategies evolve around:
- Awareness of the situation and of the hostage takers involved.
As each situation and hostage taker is different, the captive will need to carefully observe and assess the situation and then attempt a befitting violence-reducing strategy.
- Attempts to influence the perception and behavior of the hostage takers.
The situation can in most cases be influenced and the hostages is not merely a spectator but forms and active part of the dynamic. This leaves some possibility to retain control and influence the situation in favour of the hostage.
- Acceptance of the fact that violence might happen.
As hostage situation are highly volatile and uncertainty is high, no guarantees can be issued that a hostage will not be exposed to violence. Knowing this and accepting that in most cases violence is not fatal will mentally support the hostage.
The mitigation strategy applied by hostages is thus focused on prevention of violence escalation rather than coping during violence. Even though all hostage situations are different, a comforting common denominator is that while violence is likely to take place, the brutality is rarely so severe that it holds fatal consequences for the hostages.
1Alexander, D., Klein, S., 2009: Kidnapping and hostage-taking: a review of effects, coping and resilience. Journal of the Royal society of medicine.
3Laursen, S., 2004: Violence on the agenda. Democracy and power studies, Aarhus university https://unipress.dk/media/14477/87-7934-841-6_vold_p__dagsordenen.pdf
4Phillips, E., 2013: The social organization of violence toward hostages: does violence in captivity indicate which kidnappers will kill? Journal of interpersonal violence
5Alexander, D., Klein, S., 2009: Kidnapping and hostage-taking: a review of effects, coping and resilience. Journal of the Royal society of medicine.
6 Roosberg, H., Gerhardsson, L., 2013: Svenska erfarenheter av fång- och tvångssituationer. Forsvarsmakten
7Constellis, 2017: Kidnap for ransom risk: Top 10 countries, December 2017. Constellis
9 Khaja, N., 2013: Historien der ikke bliver fortalt. Gyldendal
10 Interview conducted with the Danish Army Intelligence Center, 2012
13 Damsgård, E., 2013: Det beskidte spil. Lindhardt & Ringhof
14 Damsgård, P., 2015: Ser du månen, Daniel. Politikens Forlag
15 Several sources, e.g.: https://politiken.dk/udland/int_mellemoesten/art5515987/Dansk-gidsel-frigivet-i-Syrien
16 Nybroe, J., 2015: Kidnappet. People’s press
18 Several sources, e.g. https://www.information.dk/telegram/2014/05/dansker-tilbageholdt-ukraine-tryg
19 Interview conducted with the Danish Army Intelligence Center, 2016
20 For a more detailed discussion of problem-focused versus emotional-focused coping see Lazarus, R., Folkman, S., 1984: Stress, appraisal and coping. Springer
21 Loertscher, S., Milton, D., 2015: Held hostage: Analyses of kidnapping across time and among jihadist organizations. CTC, 2015
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