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Should we negotiate with terrorist hostage takers?

Police guard the blockade line in Martin Place, Sydney, during the siege of the Lindt Cafe in December 2014. AAP/Jeff Tan

Should we negotiate with terrorist hostage takers?

The coroner’s report into the Lindt Cafe siege questioned the adequacy of the New South Wales police negotiation. But is it possible to negotiate with terrorists?

Hostage negotiation has been described as one of the most effective developments in law enforcement. Originating in the early 1970s, it was developed as a systematic approach to minimise casualties. This followed several hostage incidents that resulted in significant loss of lives, such as the Munich massacre (below).

Hostage negotiation strategies focus on the idea of “contain and negotiate”. “Contain” means ensuring the hostage takers and hostages remain in one location under the supervision and control of police. This prevents further hostages being taken. When the situation is contained, negotiation can begin.

While acknowledging that police may need to use force, this is a last resort, because tactical assaults present a high risk of casualties.

The first 15 to 45 minutes of a hostage situation are considered the most dangerous. It is a period of high emotion among hostages and hostage takers. When emotion is high, rational thinking and the ability to identify non-violent solutions are compromised, which elevates the risk of violence. Contemporary approaches to hostage negotiation therefore aim to stabilise the situation and de-escalate emotion.

Crisis intervention has become an important element in hostage negotiation. Emotion de-escalation is emphasised as a prerequisite before any negotiations can occur.

The negotiator adopts a calm, non-judgmental demeanour and uses active listening techniques. This helps model and encourage calm in the hostage takers. It gives them opportunity to raise concerns and demands, signals empathy for them, and helps establish rapport by signalling the hostage taker has been heard.

Only when rapport is established is the hostage taker likely to listen to, and be influenced by, the negotiator. This is a slow, deliberate process. Attempting to proceed too quickly is where negotiations often fail.

Most hostage takers make demands, and how these are dealt with is fundamental. A general principle is to play for time and make the hostage taker work for every concession, extracting something in return. An example would be the release of a sick or injured hostage in return for increasing air conditioning.

Evaluations have highlighted the success of these negotiation strategies, with 95% of situations dealt with in this way ending peacefully without fatalities.

Negotiating with terrorists

Terrorist behaviour defies logic, as they usually do not care for their own safety or that of others. This has led some to suggest that negotiating with them is pointless. Others have argued the Lindt Cafe siege shows the failure of “contain and negotiate” strategies with terrorists, and that police should be more aggressive in future.

However, a rigid policy of non-negotiation and police aggression is potentially dangerous. Police tactical assaults raise the risk of casualties and lose opportunities for peaceful resolution. Terrorist groups can use casualty counts for propaganda.

In contrast, negotiation has in the past secured the release of some hostages who would otherwise have been placed at risk during a tactical assault. It also allows time for detailed assessment of the situation, which helps with planning and allows time to accumulate appropriate resources for a tactical assault.

Attempts to negotiate with terrorists therefore appear to be worthwhile.

Negotiation strategies

Although committed to a cause, terrorist hostage takers are also susceptible to many of the same vulnerabilities, needs and interests as non-terrorist hostage takers. Even the most committed terrorist may experience high emotions at the start of an event while trying to achieve hostage compliance.

Many have strong family connections and other competing interests such as being a parent. These may make them more hesitant, more emotional, or more likely to sympathise with hostages. Some are mentally ill and some are less committed to violence than others.

Therefore, as with any hostage taker, crisis intervention and rapport-based hostage negotiation approaches are useful. Other non-terrorist specific strategies can also be used. For example, during the Lindt Cafe siege, the coroner’s report states that negotiators could find few points on which to negotiate.

However, as in any negotiation, simple requests from hostage takers, such as for food or for the lights to be turned on, should be used as points to develop negotiation.

Based on my research and operational experience in terrorist cases, I have argued that detailed behavioural assessment of terrorist hostage takers is vital. This is because a critical determinant in the success of negotiations with terrorists is identifying and managing the likelihood of violence. This in turn informs how negotiable the situation is and when a tactical assault may be necessary (issues that were identified in the Lindt Cafe siege).

Behavioural assessment is based on detailed analysis of the hostage taker’s social and cultural background, the extent of other competing priorities or identities, demands made, and characteristics of the terrorist organisation. This helps inform judgements about the hostage taker’s personality, motives and commitment to violence.

Real-time continuous assessment of the hostage taker’s behaviour is also important.

Included here are characteristics of interactions (what is said and how it is said) between hostage takers (if more than one), negotiators and hostages. This helps identify changes in emotion, group dynamics in the case of several hostage takers, and also informs judgements about the likelihood of violence.

Clearly not every terrorist hostage taker will be open to hostage negotiations. But everything we know from psychology tells us that some of them might be.

We owe it to the hostages, their families, our frontline police and other responders – as well as our broader liberal democratic ideals – to do everything we can to give it a go.