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Hostage Situations: Don’t be a Target

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You may think that if you’re not fabulously wealthy, you don’t need to worry about being taken hostage. But money isn’t the only reason you might find yourself in a hostage situation. It’s important to know how and why targets are selected.


See Hostage Taking with Rachel Briggs, OBE for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Rachel Briggs has spent the past twenty years as a writer, analyst, and strategist developing security protocols. She has worked with corporations, governments, and international non-governmental organizations. She helped found Hostage International and Hostage US, non-profit organizations that helps families while they are going through and getting over having a loved one in a hostage situation. In addition, she co-chairs the European Commission’s group tackling online extremism, and her report “The Business of Resilience” has become the blueprint for corporate security management.

Rachel’s Experience with Hostage Situations

In 1996, Rachel was in her first year at Cambridge University when she got some unexpected news: A family member had been taken hostage in Columbia. Her family was completely ordinary, and she had never expected anything like this. After seven months of not knowing if her family member was alive or dead, he finally returned alive.

This experience started what has become a life-long passion for Rachel to work on hostage issues. She wants to understand the crime, to help the people who have been affected by it, and try to influence public policy to make better decisions about hostage situations in the future.

Motives Behind Hostage Situations

Rachel identifies three different motives behind hostage situations. Each one has different perpetrators, different criteria for selecting targets, and different reasons for taking these targets hostage.

Political Hostage-Taking

This kind of hostage situation is the one that Rachel was most familiar with. In politically-motivated hostage situations, a terrorist organization or freedom fighter group takes both Westerners and locals hostage. Their goal is to draw attention to the cause they are fighting for or to gain political concessions from a Western government.

Economic Hostage-Taking

Economically-motivated hostage situations are the most common. These are what most people think of when they think of being taken hostage, and it’s what Rachel experienced when her family member was taken hostage. They tend to happen quietly. The kidnapper’s goal is just to get someone to pay money for the hostage’s release. In these types of hostage situations, the hostage is a commodity with a price on their head.

As long as someone is willing to pay, your loved one will come home. And if they’re not, the outcome may not be as great.

Rachel Briggs, OBE

State Hostage-Taking

In this kind of hostage situation, people are imprisoned by a foreign government for being from an “enemy” nation. An example is the Westerners who are in prison in Iran, China, or Russia for no other reason than being American, British, or European. These governments understand that if they hold the Westerners for no good reason, it puts pressure on American, British, and other governments and creates a negotiation point. You could call it “hostage diplomacy.”

In state-motivated hostage situations, you may be thrown in prison in a foreign country so the government can put pressure on your home country.

Riskiest Geographic Areas for Hostage-Taking

Latin America has been at the top of kidnapping hotspots for as long as Rachel can remember. Which specific countries are the worst can change, though. When Rachel’s relative was taken hostage, Columbia was the hostage-taking capital of the world. Now Mexico holds that dubious honor – not the whole country, but certain parts. Most of the hostage situations in Latin America have economic motives.

For political hostage-taking, the Middle East and Africa are the most risky. For state hostage-taking, Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea are the most dangerous. But it also happens in the United States. The FBI doesn’t just send agents around the world to bring home kidnapped Americans – they also retrieve domestic hostages.

People Targeted for Hostage Situations

A common kind of person targeted are the brave people who run towards danger. These people include journalists, humanitarian workers, and religious missionaries. It’s part of their job description to go into dangerous places. It used to be that self-respecting hostage-takers left journalists, humanitarians, and missionaries alone, but that’s not true anymore.

The second type of person targeted are ones you might call “unlikely” hostages. But people in the hostage situation business know that these targets are often held hostage. Business travelers are common targets. Rachel’s family member was in this category – he was an engineer working for a Danish company traveling to check out facilities in Columbia.

Men tend to be held hostage more than women, although that could be because men are more likely to go to parts of the world where kidnapping is common. But kidnappers don’t target one particular type of person. In some hostage situations, you could be held hostage because of your nationality alone.

Your Chances of Surviving a Hostage Situation

The statistics on hostage situations are not very robust. Governments don’t like to reveal how many of their citizens are held hostage each year. Regardless, there are some things Rachel does know. If you’re an American taken hostage by a terrorist group, you have a significantly lower chance of getting out alive than a European in the same situation. But if you work with a company that has the right resources and support, your chances are pretty good.

Will Paying the Ransom Get You Out Alive?

In economically-motivated hostage situations, the kidnapper will say that if your loved ones pay the ransom, you will go free. And in most cases, that’s true. It’s hard work for a kidnapper to hold someone for an extended amount of time without being caught. If they want to go from a one-time hostage-taker to a professional, they have to treat it like a business.

A professional hostage-taker needs a reputation. If someone negotiates for Hostage A and Hostage A gets back safe, they will be more willing to negotiate for Hostage B later. The negotiators Rachel worked with when her family member was taken hostage had expectations. They knew how the script went, and were able to get her family member home safe.

For many groups who want to sustain this as an ongoing activity and want to be paid for it, as absurd as it sounds, there are rules of the game.

Rachel Briggs, OBE

The most dangerous person in a hostage situation is a first-time hostage-taker. They don’t know the rules yet and they’re scared. They tend to overreact and be trigger-happy. As a hostage, that’s the most dangerous situation for you to be in.

Ways of Securing a Hostage Release

The most common way to secure a hostage’s release is to hand over money. It used to be always cash. Cash is still common, but now it can be also electronic money transfers or cryptocurrency.

Many hostage situations will end with your loved one being returned as long as you pay.

“Christmas swaps” – getting hostages returned in exchange for releasing prisoners – also happen. These tend to happen with state and political hostage situations. Sometimes policy negotiations can bring people home, as well.

Some hostages escape their captors and make it home. Military operations can also rescue hostages. Both of these methods make good movies, but they’re very dangerous. For that reason, they also tend to be rare.

The Strategy of Not Negotiating with Terrorists

While “We don’t negotiate with terrorists!” is a stirring phrase, it’s not entirely accurate. The actual position is not offering concessions to terrorists. The US and UK governments will negotiate with terrorists, but they won’t pay ransoms.

As a theoretical response, it makes sense. They want money, so if we don’t give them money, they’ll stop taking hostages, right? The problem is that practically, hostage-taking preys on our vulnerability. If Rachel’s husband ended up in a hostage situation, she would sell her house and beg, borrow, or steal from friends to get the money to get him back. Columbia and Italy made ransom payments illegal, and it didn’t work. Families who had a loved one taken hostage just didn’t tell the government and dealt with it off the books. It made it more dangerous for both the families and the hostage.

The idea of paying money to terrorists is distasteful, but Rachel thinks we’re asking the wrong question. A better question is, “What could we do to stop kidnapping?” If we start from that question, we will talk about cutting down kidnappers’ operations and giving incentives to make money in the legal economy. We wouldn’t be talking about ransom payments at all.

The countries that have successfully ended their own domestic [hostage-taking] issues have not done that by stopping ransom payments, because it doesn’t work. They’ve done it by dismantling the groups.

Rachel Briggs, OBE

Virtual Kidnappings

In a virtual kidnapping, the kidnapper doesn’t actually kidnap anyone. The “kidnapper” convinces the victim that their loved one is in a hostage situation and they need to pay a ransom without actually creating that hostage situation. The kidnapper may call a grandfather and say, “I’ve kidnapped your grandson from college, pay the ransom or you’ll never see him again.” Meanwhile, the grandson is in class and has no idea this is going on. Or the kidnapper may blackmail someone into telling the victim that they have been kidnapped even though they haven’t.

Virtual kidnapping is frequently underreported because victims are embarrassed that they fell for it. We don’t have specific numbers for virtual kidnapping cases, but Rachel sees it on the rise. The FBI categorizes virtual kidnapping as extortion, and extortion went up 76% between 2019 and 2020. It’s also getting more elaborate and more organized. And the victim doesn’t only lose money, there’s also a psychological impact.

Reduce Your Risk of Getting in a Hostage Situation

The United States, UK, and other countries provide good travel advisories. They routinely list risk of kidnapping by country. Rachel mentioned Mexico as a kidnapping hotspot, but obviously not everywhere in Mexico has that problem. Check the State Department’s website to find out if your vacation destination is risky.

Otherwise, Rachel advises basic personal safety and security measures. Don’t wear expensive watches or jewelry – avoid looking like a wealthy target. Don’t drive after dark in dangerous areas. Take general travel and safety precautions.

You may need specialist help if you go to a part of the world that’s especially risky. Potentially, you may want to hire personal security guards. There is also the option of kidnap and ransom insurance. This insurance is underwritten with specialist hostage negotiators. If you end up in a hostage situation, you’ll have the help of a particular firm.

Being taken hostage is a very rare crime, but it’s still more common that you would think. Every year, two hundred Americans become hostages overseas. And the aftereffects last a long time. More awareness and understanding of this is important. It could happen to any of us.

You can find Rachel Briggs online at clarityfactory.com, on her personal blog at rachelbriggs.org, or on Twitter @RachelBriggsUK.

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