How to Survive a Hostage Situation

As a former Army Intelligence Agent and FBI Hostage Negotiator, I’ve been involved in many national and international hostage and kidnap situations as part of coordinated efforts to obtain the release of hostages from their captors.

2008 witnessed the attack by believed L.E.T. terrorists (later indicated to all have been from Pakistan) on India’s capital city of Mumbai where almost 200 were killed, 400 wounded, and hundreds held hostage in two of Mumbai’s most famous and grand hotels and other facilities. Meanwhile waterborne terrorists continue to attack ships sailing the waters of the world, taking crews hostage and holding them and their ships for ransom. In April terrorists captured the French cruise ship Le Ponant and held the ship and passengers hostage until the payment of a ransom, and on 11/30, terrorists using two fast boats attacked the Oceania cruise ship M/S Nautica off of the pirate infested coast of Somalia.

Terrorist and Pirate Hostage Taking

The Nautica’s captain knew what to do as the pirates approached his ship carrying 1,000 souls at 9:30 AM Sunday morning. He took evasive action, threw the ship into flank speed, and simply outran the pirates as they fired multiple rifle rounds at the quickly disappearing ship. The response of a nearby multi-national naval group, plus a French military helicopter, caused the pirates to flee, but their message was clear. Just like in Mumbai, they have raised the stakes of hostage taking, going for hundreds of hostages at one time to get the attention of the world and to force ship owners and governments to pay ever increasing multi-million dollar ransoms.

Many people have been taken hostage since Abram used a 318 man hostage rescue team (HRT) to save his nephew Lot and other hostages who were then held captive by the army of three kings (Genesis 14). While there are modern day civilian and military equivalents to Abram’s hostage rescue team, the responsible of survival still rests with the individual hostage. What follows are a few tips I’ve learned the hard way, this from talking to hundreds of people who have been the victim of criminal and terrorist hostage takings. Knowing these tips could save your life!

Emotional Phases to being Taken Hostage

If you are taken Hostage or kidnapped, you will likely experience four distinct phases as part of your emotional response to any such situation. Knowing these will help you survive your captivity.

1) The Initial or Alarm phase is where your life is changed forever, where your normal routine is disrupted, where your instant decisions may mean life or death for you and your family and where your initial reaction of mental and physical paralysis, to include panic, can greatly diminish your chances of survival.

2) The Crisis phase is where denial is eventually is replaced by acceptance; however we have found that hostages must be prepared to deal with isolation, loss of a sense of time, and, depending on the physical environment in which you are held, a sense of claustrophobia. In isolation you must handle being left alone, not talking for fear of being discovered, or left in the company of hostage takers who do not speak your native language and who refuse any type of dialogue with you. You experience a loss of time when you cannot tell night from day or know the day of the week, while you can become claustrophobic in a confined space for an extended period of time.

3) In the Accommodation phase many experience either boredom or extreme terror, with the two emotional extremes causing you to be exhausted. I’ve encountered many hostages who slept through most of their experience, another form of personal denial. Some experience the Stockholm Syndrome (see my article at, an emotional coping device in which the hostage identifies with the hostage taker and his goals.

4) In the Final or resolution phase, as a survival you must deal with your emotions, to include your feelings towards the hostage takers, the authorities, and your fellow hostages. Although none will forget their experiences, some will become lifelong prisoners of their memories while others will positively deal with these emotions and recollections and move on with their lives. As the German philosopher Nietzsche said, “That which does not destroy me makes me stronger.”

Be a Successful Hostage

Successful survivors of hostage situations have been found to have had a number of things going for them, to include: A positive mental attitude coupled with a personal sense of faith, to include religious faith, faith in your country, and faith that you will be rescued. Some hostages, to include military POWs, have found solitude in mental escape, perhaps driving along California’s coastal highway in their mind, or building a new home, stick by stick, brick by brick, or writing a novel in your mind. No matter your fantasy, your goal is to successfully occupy your time in a manner that supports your survival. Don’t get caught up in the “could have, would have, should have” concerning your situation. Play the cards you are dealt and know that it is obviously better to be a live hostage than a dead victim, so adjust and survive. If possible, keep a sense of humor and be flexible in your situation.

Surviving the Unthinkable

Let’s get down to the actual hostage taking and what you need do in those early crucial minutes to survive. Years ago the Rand Corporation found that most of the hostages killed, died either in the initial hostage taking or when authorities sought to rescue them. I have been part of many hostage rescue missions and know by experience that trained police and military hostage rescue teams, like the FBI’s HRT, Germany’s GSG-9, the French GIGN, US Navy Seals, US Army DELTA, and others have high rates of success at what they do best; kill terrorists and rescue hostages, noting most team mission statements stress the saving of lives.

You are now in a hotel that comes under attack by terrorists, or on board a cruise ship when terrorists repel onto your ship in the middle of the night, or just walking down the street when you come under attack. What should you do?

As I’ve indicated, the first few minutes of the hostage taking incident can be the most dangerous for you. You need immediately look for a way out, a way to avoid the terrorists and escape from capture; while at the same time weighing escape against death should a terrorist believe you are resisting his attempts to take you. If, however, you are in Mumbai’s Taj Hotel and bullets and grenades are flying, escape should be your first thought. This is your decision and it must be made in a split second so it is best to role play your reaction to such a situation in advance, to include knowing what the best escape route in a hotel would be (like in case of a fire, choose the stairs and not the elevator).

Life is not the Movies

Although television and the movies portray hostages overpowering their captors, grabbing their weapons and fighting their way out of a hostage situation, such is usually fantasy and not reality. One hostage held in the Middle East saw his teenage guard fall asleep, his AK47 propped up in the corner next to him as he slept. “I thought,” said he, “that I’d grab the gun, knock the guard out, and escape the building where we were being held and fight my way to safety.” He then thought, “I don’t know who is outside the door, I don’t know how to fire an AK47, I don’t know where I’m being held, and I don’t know where to run to.” He rolled over and when back to sleep, eventually gaining his freedom weeks later through negotiations.

Keep your wits about you and maintain your composure. From Vietnam to the FBI I’ve been in situations where my heart was beating so loud that I thought I could be heard coming a block away. Take the time to regain your composure as to do so guarantees you’ll be able to think clearly and act purposefully without that gigantic lump in your throat.

Stay in your room or cabin if you do not have a clear way to escape, keeping the lights off, your cel phone turned on vibrate, and stay away from windows where you could be injured, lock your doors and pull the drapes closed and lock all windows. Fill the bath tub and sink with water for your use in a long siege, and If the building is on fire, stuff wet towels under the door and in the air vents if smoke is coming through them. Stay away from out walls and charge your cel phone as electricity may soon be cut off, and be sure to take stock of your food and medical supplies and assess your ability to last for days if necessary in your small quarters.

If captured, do not show resistance to your captors as to do so could mark you for death. Try not to make eye contact with the terrorists and do what you are told while remaining calm and maintaining your dignity. You want to come off as a positive human being, someone who is worthy of respect and life. I’ve seen hostages killed because they appeared too aggressive or too wimpy. You want to find a place in the middle of this continuum and maintain that posture unless circumstances suggest a need to adjust. If you can speak to your captor, try taking to them about your life and family, perhaps showing him a picture of your family, this as the more someone knows about you the more they may be hesitant to hurt you.

Listen to what your captor says and don’t engage in arguments about politics or religion, as these are potentially “hot” topics with terrorists. As above, consider talking to your captor about his family and his life. Try to blend in with the other hostages, communicating with them when it’s safe to do so. If you are made to wear a blindfold, keep it in place unless instructed otherwise. In one situation I was involved in outside of Manila in the Philippines, the American hostage was forced to keep his blindfold on for over two months, and although the terrorists planned to kill him if rescue troops tried to intervene, the military HRT used flash bang diversionary grenades to force the terrorists to look away long enough to neutralize them and rescue the hostage.

If you believe you are to be killed, use the escape plan you have thought about. By this, if you are sure you are going to die, any escape attempt could be better than surrendering to death on the terrorist’s time table.

But let’s say you were captured and are held by terrorists. Like in India and in so many other situations I have been involved in, the good guys, the HRTs will eventually arrive and will put into place a plan to rescue you. If you believe rescue in at hand, try to stay out of the way of your captors. When we blew off the doors of a US prison to rescue hostages held by rioting prisoners, the hostages barricaded themselves in a cell, using mattresses to keep the rioters at bay until the tactical team got to them.

When the troops arrive at your doorstep, know that they may not be initially able to tell you from a terrorist. Stay low, protect your head, get behind a bed or in a bath tub, and make sure the troops can see your hands and thereby know that you do not pose a threat to them. Hostages have been shot when tactical teams entered a room or a plane to save them and one or more of the hostages abruptly stood up. Stay down until you are instructed to do otherwise and even then anticipate that you will be treated as a possible terrorist until the troops are able to confirm otherwise.

Know what’s going on around you and who captured you. The responding HRT members will need information from you to aid in their capture of the remaining terrorists and the rescue of other hostages. How were the terrorists dressed and armed, what language did they speak, and who were the other hostages? Remember the input from all five of your senses, as you may have been able to smell, taste of even feel things that your eyes and ears could not confirm. Some terrorists have thrown down their weapons and attempted to walk out like a hostage, only to be identified by a knowing hostage who recognized the terrorist for what he really was.

Congratulates! You have escaped or been rescued from your situation. As you are led away you may see evidence of death and destruction all around you. This was not your fault and you have survived for a good reason, perhaps to insure that others benefit from your experience, or, as Tom Hanks said to the soldier he rescued in Saving Private Ryan, to “build a better light bulb.” No matter the reason for your success, this is not the time to get caught up in survivor’s guilt, believing that you should have died with those around you. Accepting your survival is part of playing the hand you were dealt. Grieve for those who may have died, help the injured if you can, and know that you now have a new chance at life. Use it well!

One Response to “How to Survive a Hostage Situation”

  1. Lisa Joseph says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I can really relate. Most importantly may God bless you!