What is it like to be kidnapped?
This is what you should do if you are kidnapped
Illustration: Cei Willis
As a Hollywood producer, you can never go wrong with a good kidnapping film. Somehow people who are involuntarily chained in a dark basement for a long time manage to fascinate the public over and over again. That's why works like 96 hours also followed by several sequels, each grossing hundreds of millions of dollars — despite the constant concept: Oh, someone was kidnapped again. We know this world of kidnapping inside and out through films and series, but in real life we still have no idea about it.
So what is really going on - apart from all the scripted and heroic sayings? How does it feel to negotiate with kidnappers? To find out, we spoke to an anonymous specialist from the detective agency Athena Intelligence. This specialist comes from military circles and has extensive training and years of experience. He has also helped establish the UK's official handling of hostage-takers. Now he has explained to us what his everyday life as a hostage negotiator is like.
VICE: So kidnappings. What are the basics of your work?
Negotiator: We prepare diplomats, business people, and so on, so that they know how to prevent a hostage-taking, or how best to act if the worst comes to the worst. That's one aspect of my job. Then there are the cases in which people forego any preparation due to their stinginess and the poop is really steaming. Then they call someone like me.
What are the most common motivations for kidnappings and hostage-taking?
There are a number of reasons why someone might become a kidnapper: ideological or religious fanaticism, financial hardship, and temporary or even chronic mental illness. Prison inmates may also take the guards hostage. In the news, however, the politically or religiously motivated acts are more likely to end up, because unfortunately the public is most interested in them.
But even briefly insane people are often seen - for example, a failed marriage that ends in tragedy, or an angry coworker. In the religious cases, however, it is often the case that religion does not play such a major role on closer inspection. Kidnappings are a profitable source of money for the organizations behind them and that is why most kidnapping cases always have a financial or propaganda motive.
Who even calls you during a hostage situation? Do you work with the police or do you represent something like an alternative to the officers?
That depends on where the act takes place. In some countries the police are not as capable or trustworthy. Then you have to make a decision. In addition, it always depends on the demands of the kidnappers. I don't mean to say that you should do everything they ask, but you don't have to annoy them unnecessarily either - especially in heated situations. Often the kidnappers want the police out of the picture. In such cases, the families or the companies call me.
Is there a particular hostage-taking scenario that is particularly common? And how realistic are the films in which people are tied to chairs and then locked in some basement?
Surprisingly, this is not so out of thin air. Here again it depends on the motive for the kidnapping. In politically and religiously motivated kidnappings, the hostages are often not treated well. This is exactly why the preparatory training is so immensely important.
Circumstances are never good, and yes, people have been handcuffed to chairs before. In some cases there are multiple hostages. And it doesn't necessarily have to be a gloomy basement room with a locked door. I've also seen cases where the hostages were simply brought into a village and they said, "You are in the middle of nowhere. If you run away, you will die." Captivity is not defined by four walls, but by restricted freedom of movement.
Let's say I'm being taken hostage. What is the best way to behave then?
When this worst case occurs, you should be indulgent and passive, but not submissive. It is similar with schoolyard tyrants: They behave even worse with obviously submissive classmates, but they also want to prevent particularly aggressive behavior towards them. So you must neither annoy the kidnappers nor crouch in the corner as a weak, howling something, because they will take advantage of that. Also, keep in mind that whatever you do while in captivity will be burned into your mind. So you have to be able to live with your actions and statements during the kidnapping for the rest of your life.
This is precisely why the correct reintroduction into society is so important. Abduction victims need adequate psychiatric treatment in order to overcome their trauma. Since one has to behave correctly during the kidnapping, we give our clients various coping mechanisms with which they can establish a connection with the kidnappers. You have to present yourself as a person. In the case of a religious kidnapping, for example, the kidnappers simply see you as a white European and thus automatically as an enemy to be destroyed. However, if they perceive you as a husband with two children, a career, and an interest in your background, religion, etc., then it will be much harder for them to torture or kill.
Can you somehow tell the kidnapping victims something like that in retrospect?
No, it will be too late by then. This is exactly why preparation is so important. However, I always ask to speak to the hostage, because that way I know directly whether she is still alive and whether she is really in the hands of the kidnappers. It often happens that suddenly a lot of people claim to be the kidnappers.
Are there really people who falsely claim to have kidnapped someone?
Absolutely. I have to find out exactly which organization it is and who the contact person is there. Otherwise, I may be wasting precious time talking to the wrong people.
Is there a window of time within which a hostage situation should end?
That's always different. My goal is to end the whole thing as quickly as possible. However, you always have to maintain a certain balance. Such a problem should never be solved with money, because it only instigates copycats. I always try to maintain a dialogue. No answer is usually a bad sign. Therefore, before the end of the individual conversation, you always have to make an appointment for the next one and leave a door open for yourself.
Some kidnapping victims are certain not to have a completely clean slate of their own. Do you have an obligation to report something like this?
No, I'm not a cop. Before I take a case, however, I need to learn and understand all the background information. And if I feel uncomfortable about something, then of course I can decline the assignment. I am a free person. Sometimes criminals also mess with criminals, but then I keep my hands off that. However, if the victim is a child, then it cannot help the father's deeds. Accordingly, it is not possible to draw a really clear line here. You have to decide on a case-by-case basis.
Do such negotiations have a high success rate? Or do you often experience tragedies too?
The success rate varies from region to region. In South and Central America, as well as in parts of the Middle East, the chances of negotiating are worse than elsewhere. Basically, however, the negotiations almost always have a positive outcome. At most, it doesn't go as fast as you might want. In the above-mentioned parts of the world and also in West Africa, however, a real kidnapping industry has developed and they often say: "Hey, why don't I just kidnap someone with my buddies to make some money?" They are then not experienced kidnappers and so they often panic and do not know what to do. Sometimes they collect the ransom and kill the hostage anyway.
Have you ever made a mistake during a negotiation and suddenly found yourself in danger?
There is always some risk. However, I am very careful. I analyze the circumstances and then determine what is necessary to make them as safe as possible for everyone involved. But yes, I have also found myself in situations that I was uncomfortable with and where I was glad to have come out alive.
Are you armed in such situations?
No, I don't carry any firearms with me. In some cases I have an armed security guard by my side, but when I have to open fire, something has gone really wrong.
You said that you are reluctant to solve kidnapping cases with money because this is the kind of kidnapping industry that is emerging. At the same time, without such an industry, you're left with no job. Is there a healthy middle ground here? What has to change so that everything doesn't get out of hand and this industry is booming?
In my opinion, government should be very clear: "We do not negotiate, we do not make concessions and we do not pay a ransom." The reality is rather different. Preparatory training is therefore essential and yet is often ignored. And if the employees of a company do receive it, then it is often completely inadequate. Sometimes I just think to myself: "Damn it, what were they thinking when they taught you that ?!"
I show people how to avoid or survive kidnapping. What I don't do is drag her into a darkened room and then get ready for half a day. This is a completely wrong approach and only creates an unnecessary feeling of helplessness in such a situation. Regular and, above all, proper training would lower the number of kidnappings. And since there are other ways to make my living, I would be pretty happy if there were no more kidnappings.
Are there any places or any organizations - keyword IS or drug cartels - in this world that you would rather not have anything to do with?
In my opinion, nothing should be excluded here and each case should be considered individually. Who was kidnapped? Why was this person kidnapped? What do the kidnappers want? Then you see what you can do to solve the situation. If there is nothing, then the case must be rejected.
The job is to get people free again. If you can, it doesn't matter whether the kidnapping is in the Middle East or Central America. In some parts of the world, however, it makes no sense at all to get involved if the police have already been called in. The officers do not feel like helping an "outsider" with their work, and they deliberately cause problems. Every case is different.
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