What If I’m Kidnapped by Terrorists?

A how-to guide for hostages overseas.

Hostages with a terrorist. Click image to expand.
Terrorist and hostages

Afghan police found the body of a South Korean hostage on Wednesday, in the region where the Taliban had kidnapped 23 evangelical missionaries last week. What should you do if you’re kidnapped by terrorists?

Run away if you can; stay calm if you can’t. According to security experts, your best chance for escape is almost always during the initial phases of the kidnapping. If you’re in public, try to make as much commotion as possible to alert bystanders or the police. But once you’re in your captor’s custody, remain courteous and comply with instructions. Don’t get hostile or lose your temper: Aggression is only likely to result in punishment. One security consulting company urges anyone captured as part of a group to become a “gray person”—neither resistant nor overly submissive. That way, terrorists are less inclined to single you out for punishment. Also, stay alert: If they’re transporting you somewhere by car, try to memorize the route. Likewise, keep track of time spent in transit, so you can judge how much distance you covered. If you decide to risk an escape, it should be informed and unreserved; a desperate or half-hearted attempt will probably fail, and draw serious retribution.

If it becomes clear that you’re going to be in captivity for a while, try to establish a routine. If possible, get some exercise. Former hostages call boredom one of the hardest things about being captured. Take your time performing tasks, whether it’s cleaning your room or eating a meal. Also, do your best to establish a rapport with your captors. Ask for things to make you more comfortable, like a pillow or snacks, so your kidnappers become aware of your needs. The more they think of you as a human being rather than an ideological enemy, the better.

Soldiers, too, are encouraged to form a connection with their captors. According to the Army’s Code of Conduct, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE), “Hostages … may discuss non-substantive topics such as sports, family, and clothing, to convey to the terrorists the captive’s personal dignity and human qualities.” (Read it in full here [PDF].) In general, prisoners of war are not required to give anything more than their name, rank, identification number, and date of birth. If they’re coerced or tortured, they “must avoid aiding the enemy to the best of their ability.” That means they have to resist writing confessions or otherwise making the United States look bad. Letter-writing is permitted, however, as long as the letters don’t contain any information that will “further the enemy’s cause.” All U.S. Army soldiers are required to take basic SERE training classes, and those going to Afghanistan and Iraq usually take higher-level courses, too.

Organizations that send people to Iraq and Afghanistan often pay for “hostile environment” training that includes information on how to deal with hostage situations. Centurion Risk Assessment Services, for example, trains reporters and private contractors to deal with kidnapping as well as land mines, booby traps, weapons, and first aid. Contractors and news organizations can also buy kidnapping insurance, which covers ransom money and sometimes subsequent psychological treatment.

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Explainer thanks Maj. Tom McCuin of U.S. Army Public Affairs and Karin Von Hippel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.