The Algerian Hostage Situation
The hostage situation in Algeria has descended into chaos and Western governments are venting their criticism at the Algerian government for storming the Al Qaeda-linked hostage takers and precipitating a shootout. The Western governments might wish to reconsider the appropriateness of their judgments.
For decades I labored in the world of hostage and barricade situations interviewing hostage negotiators and assault teams both here and abroad. The Western model of hostage negotiations emanates from law enforcement, specifically from a program designed by the New York City Police Department. The NYPD model was highly successful and adopted by governments through out the Western world. It was predicated on the idea that every life is valuable, hostage takers ultimately do not want to die, and success is achieved when everyone walks out alive -- including the hostage takers.
Similarly, the model for dealing with airline hijacking was predicated on the idea that hijackers were not suicidal, one should cooperate with them, get the airplane safely on the ground, and let some government's trained specialists get the hijackers to capitulate. We all saw how successful that model was on 9/11.
The idea of saving everyone's life -- even the lives of terrorists -- was widely celebrated in these policies and seen as rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage. So imbedded in our thinking was the idea of the value of a human life that at the highest levels of government, pre-9/11, people spoke of Islam as also finding suicide abhorrent. Intelligence analysts dissected what appeared to be obvious suicide missions against Israel as having an escape route. And suicide bombings were deviant events, certainly something America would not have to worry about.
Hostage and barricade situations, no matter who the hostage takers were, could be handled by getting the hostage takers to embrace the value of their lives and do the rational thing, capitulate. Consequently, a domestic dispute resulting in hostage taking, an interrupted robbery resulting in hostage taking, or a terrorist group taking hostages for political reasons all were generally seen through the same lens and intellectually dissected the same way.
Some European countries used trained psychiatrists as negotiators and when some hostage-takers capitulated and subsequently committed suicide, the medical community demanded investigations of the negotiators. Rather than assume that a hostage taking might be a manifestation of a suicidal impulse, the medical community thought that somehow in the process of negotiating the psychiatrist had implanted thoughts that drove the hostage taker to take his own life. Psychiatrists who had saved lives found themselves being investigated for being catalysts for suicide.
Of course, not everyone adhered to the "everyone walks out alive" model. Police departments other than New York were less likely to run the clock and put innocent lives at risk while a crazed man with a gun made demands. The Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team became legendary in police circles, and somewhat grudgingly admired, for its physical training and the skills of its marksmen. LA SWAT would negotiate and try and get a hostage taker to do the right thing, but if they had an opportunity to use force, they were going to do it. If terrorists shot first, SWAT was not going to hesitate to return fire. In police circles the adage was, "New York will talk you to death, but if you start f**kin' with LA SWAT, they will kill you for real."
Although European countries lined up with the New York model, Israel was more like Los Angeles. I once interviewed an Israeli general whose units had handled some of Israel's most difficult and violent hostage and barricade situations. In preparing for my interview, I noticed that no terrorists survived the assaults of his troops. I asked him about that, and after digressing into the nuances of a fire fight with automatic weapons, he looked me straight in the eye and said, "You notice that. They notice that too."
That was a time when the Palestinian terrorist groups, like Palestinians generally, where largely secular. And killing a group of terrorists made it far and away more difficult for the terrorist organization to recruit for the next mission.
Precious few who operated in the world of hostage and barricade situations before 9/11 truly embraced or even mentioned the idea of Jihad and religious fanatics willing to sacrifice their lives to be with virgins in paradise. And those few who did, like Dr. Robert Kupperman, the one-time Chief Scientist for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, were treated as alarmists.
Even after 9/11 a lot of thinking in policy circles was that terrorism is a problem for domestic law enforcement. It is this mentality that gives rise to the unfortunate and inappropriate criticism of the Algerians.
We need to grapple with the reality that a new breed of terrorist does not want to live but wants to die for Jihad. The old models for hostage situations do not work, and labeling incidents like the Fort Hood massacre as workplace violence does not help. It denies that the perpetrator, Major Nidal Hassan, was motivated by fanaticism and acted in the name of Jihad. We cannot simultaneously deny what terrorism is and formulate policy to deal with it.
Hostage and barricade situations that pit terrorists who want to die against hostages who want to live are not going to be resolved as a scenario out of the NYPD negotiating manual. It's time to realize that. Domestic terrorists who embrace Jihad cannot be treated like bank robbers who walked into a bank to take money and only take hostages to escape being captured. Bank robbers do not embark on a suicide mission. Jihadists do.
Yes, the situation in Algeria is chaotic and messy, and it will continue that way until the terrorists in this episode are hunted down and killed. To defeat this kind of terrorism, we must realize that terrorists commit acts of terrorism for the same reason that people sell bread. There is some profit in it. When people can't make a profit from selling bread, they will stop. When terrorists realize that there are far reaching repercussions for those who orchestrate acts of terrorism that make terrorism a liability, they will stop.
To achieve this we must recognize what and whom we are fighting. This means stopping the euphemistic rhetoric about terrorism and the political censorship that removes "Jihad," "Islam," and "terrorism" from the same sentence. It means crafting new policies that makes acts of terrorism immensely costly for those who send people out to kill innocents for their cause. There is much that can be done, if we have the political will to do it. In the meantime, the Algerians deserve our support, not our misguided criticism.