Everyone loves a good hostage situation film.  Like a great horror movie, it gets the blood pumping and has twists and turns with plot lines not anticipated.  It’s a world we all know from movies and TV, but what really happens when it’s not a movie script and a hostage situation is actually real?

“Temper us in fire & we grow stronger.”

                                                                                           – Cassandra Clare


While training or planning for a hostage situation may seem far-fetched for the average citizen, it actually produces a very relevant and valuable set of skills. While it’s no surprise that this training is common place in the military, or it is expected that police receive training in order to deal with a hostage situation, it’s also relevant to those who work in high-risk fields, individuals and their families who are of high-net-worth and therefore a high-risk target for ransom, individuals in banking or currency transportation, and those who travel abroad.

To explore further, we can analyze the findings of an MI6 operative who worked for years in Northern Ireland and South America against weapon smugglers, drug cartels and insurgent guerrilla movements shared insight from her debriefings of hundreds of people taken hostage as well as their captors. “Ms. X” was a major contributor to the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Policy on Hostage Negotiations.

The most significant point Ms. X discovered in her review of the interviews was that hostage survival came down to recognizing who could be ultimately responsible for a hostage’s survival.  It was the individual hostage and their attitude about the ordeal.

Outlined in brief below are what several hostages learned the hard way, after being guests of the IRA, the Median Cartel, and Peru’s Sendero Luminoso.  These brave victims shared the highs and lows of their captivity.  Most importantly, because they had no training or experience with a military-style Survive, Evade, Resist & Escape (SERE) training program, they learned as they went hour by hour and day to day.

Understanding the Emotional Phases

Ms. X identified five emotional phases of a hostage situation and this is assuming the target was not injured in the attack when they were taken.  Medical issues of any kind can enhance or increase the length of time a phase might last.  Here are the five phases and some of the common key points from her interviews:

The Alarm Phase– Life has changed, your daily routine is upside down and any decision you make can mean your life or death.  You feel paralyzed.  Your initial reaction is to panic as your mental and physical state shuts down. Denial sets in with your mind racing through “I could have, would have, or should have” scenarios.

The Crisis Phase– Denial is slowly replaced by reality and a sense of isolation sinks in.  Claustrophobia is a common feeling at this stage. Being left alone or guarded by a captor who does not speak your language or who refuses any type of dialogue can be very intimidating.   You may experience a loss of time, you can’t tell night from day or what day of the week it is.

The Accommodation Phase– Boredom and fear induce extreme exhaustion. Increased sleep may set in, which in its self is a form of personal denial of the situation. Stockholm Syndrome may take effect whereby the hostage identifies with their captor’s and their goals.  Each of these mentalities is a common emotional coping device.

The Resolution Phase– To survive a hostage situation, the captive learns to deal with their emotions, to include their feelings towards their captors, the authorities working for their release, and their fellow hostages.  Calm sets in and rational thinking begins to return.

Post Captivity Phase– No hostage will forget their experiences, some will deal positively with their emotions, others will require extensive counseling, and some will become lifelong prisoners of their memories.

So how does one survive the first three critical phases to reach a mental peace often found in the resolution phase?  First, believe you will be released alive and well.  Get control of your emotions and keep your wits about you.  Take time to regain your composure which will allow you to think clearly and make each thing you do or say with an intended purpose.  Secondly, assess your environment and try to absorb the atmospherics.  What can you observe?

Be Observant

Right from the start try to observe and remember as much as possible.  Being alert can help you plan an escape, predict your captor’s s next moves, or give information to the police to aid in a rescue of other kidnapped individuals. What to look for:

Observe your captors, how many are there?

What is your captor’s mood (calm, fearful, stressed, angry)?

Are the captors armed & If so, with what?

Do the captors appear to be in good physical condition?

What do the captors look like and sound like?

How old are they and do they appear to be experienced?

Do they seem well-prepared with weapons, ammo, food, water, and communications?

Observe the surroundings, are you in an industrial, city, urban or rural area?

Observe yourself, are you injured?

Did you receive medical treatment or did you have to ask for it?

How are you bound or otherwise incapacitated?

How much freedom of movement do you have?

Could you be moved, if so to where?

Are there other hostages & how many?

What is the emotional state of the other hostages & how are they bound?

What is the mood of the other hostages & Do they need medical treatment?

Even if you are blindfolded, you can still gather information with your other senses.  Listen, what can you hear, city, urban or rural noises?  What can you smell, food, industrial, agricultural maybe city pollutants?  Is it hot, cold, humid, dry or damp?

SERE training teaches that a hostage’s greatest danger is a feeling of hopelessness. Planning a survival strategy gives a sense of hope. The first part of your planning is to cooperate with your captors to avoid any further injury.  You’re alive for a reason.  While befriending them is very unlikely, it’s important to calmly test the limits of how far they allow you to stray beyond their control.

Your optimal mindset is to remain neutral and to be a successful hostage.  How? If you recall in our “Psychology of Survival” blog we mentioned Colonel Spencer Chapman’s excellent World War II memoir “The Jungle Is Neutral.”  Trapped behind Japanese lines in the Malayan jungle, Colonel Chapman attributed his survival to a simple philosophy, the environment you are in is neutral.  To survive you need to accept the dangers and benefits of the environment.  Colonel Chapman’s positive attitude was his greatest tool and his mindset ensured that his physical well-being and the intent to live were validated every day.

A positive mental attitude coupled with a personal sense of faith is a solid foundation to survive.  Faith, of any kind, be it religious, in your country, in family or friends and that you will be rescued is a must.  Keep a sense of humor and remain flexible. Some hostages, including military POWs, have found solitude in a mental escape to be a safe place where they can engage their mind, set goals or create a dream trip.  Some of these escapes included writing a book, designing their dream house, building a fantasy sports team or driving the California coast.  While in SERE school, I seriously doubted the mental escape routine, but found my greatest stress reducer was creating fantasy rock bands for different genres of music.  No matter what your fantasy, your goal is to successfully occupy your time in a manner that directly supports your survival.

One thing that is very important and is often not covered in a hostage situation is to stay physically active. While it can be difficult to exercise while restrained, it’s important to do so if at all possible. Staying in the best physical condition can help in an escape attempt if the conditions are right.  Exercise can also keep you in good spirits while in captivity. Find ways to exercise, even if it’s just doing pushups, leg lifts, flexing and stretching or just pushing your hands together.

Despite the situation, maintain your dignity and try to build a relationship with your captors. Don’t insult, fight or argue with them.  Be empathetic, it’s harder for your captor to hurt you if you appear more “human” to them.  Ask for small favors: a glass of water, something to eat, a newspaper or a book. Do they have a computer, ask if you can play a computer game.  If the captivity appears to drag on, gradually ask for small accommodations like a heavier blanket.  Keep the requests small initially, and space them far apart. These small insignificant “asks” can make your captivity more comfortable and you more human to your captors.

One of the things we are often asked by our clients when discussing hostage survival is “What if I get the opportunity to escape, how do it?”  Let’s be clear if you have the chance to escape, make sure you have a plan, a well thought out plan.  Life is not the movies or TV where the hostage, Joe Q. Citizen (played by some heroic actor), overpowers their captors, grabs a weapon and fights their way to freedom and safety.  It’s a nice fantasy, but it’s not reality.

Let us share one true story about a hostage held in the Middle East.  He saw his solitary guard fall asleep with his AK-47 propped in the corner next to him. He immediately thought, “Here is my chance to grab a gun, knock the guard out, and escape.  I can fight my way to safety.” His next thought was, “I don’t know who is outside the door, I don’t know how to fire an AK-47, I don’t know where I’m being held, and I don’t know where to run to.” He rolled over and went back to sleep and gained his freedom several weeks later through negotiations.  So if escape is an option, think it all the way through.  The choice is yours.

One of the key things we know and want to share with you is this. “When it’s all over, don’t judge yourself.”  These are very wise words come from an accomplished psychiatrist, Dr. John Leech, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom and a former military “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape” (SERE) instructor.  Dr. Leech elaborated with “You may have had high expectations of how should have acted or you were not as heroic as you thought you should have been. Don’t set expectations for yourself that are clearly unattainable.   If the bar is set too high and the expectations improbable then you will forever be criticizing and judging yourself.”

We have only touched on hostage survival tips and would welcome the chance to sit down and talk with you in the near future.  We would like to invite you and your family, friends and business colleagues down to Trident Response Group to talk in far more detail about hostage survival techniques and other personal security training we offer.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”