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Of Hijacking and Hostage Taking

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

First of all, we should be grateful that the 150 plus passengers and the eleven crew members of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 returned home safe. A new year's gift that we should all cherish. The eight-day ordeal will leave a number of scars on the hostages and some of those scars will take long to heal. The hijacking has also left scars on the Indian psyche and I don't know how we will deal with it. The most terrible of all is the brutal killing of Rupin Katyal, the newly wed returning home from his honeymoon. Rupin died a most violent death. His throat was slit and he bled to death begging for water. His wife, suspecting something was wrong, but still believing that she would see him after she landed in Delhi, was supposed to have kept asking, "How come he is not here to see me?" This, remember, is the handiwork of a people who claim to be waging a "holy war". The Indian government has held the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a Pakistan-based militant outfit, responsible for the eight-day-long ordeal which ended in Kandahar on December 31st, 1999.

Now that the hijack drama is over, the postmortems have begun. In this article I will give you some information on the nature of hostage taking and hostage takers and the kinds of negotiation techniques that are often used by the experts. But to begin with I will comment on the critiques offered by the media of the resolution to the hostage taking.

There were the usual media pundits whose hatred of the BJP has led them to write analyses mocking the government: "So, where was their vaunted toughness when it came to dealing with these hijackers?" they are saying in an exhibition of macabre glee (see the analysis in The Hindu, January 1st, 2000). There are very few experts on hostage negotiations in India and I don't think we can find even one of them working for any Indian newspaper. It is also very strange for the newspapers to accuse the government of being disorganized and ineffective in a fast moving crisis and yet not exercise any discipline in their own reporting and analyses. I will give below some excerpts from Deccan Herald to show you how the "Left" editorial hand does not know of the "Right" analysis on the op-ed page. It is not a matter of providing "balance" in the analyses, as much as an indication of shoddy reporting and superficial analysis.

Some of the so-called experts and some editorial writers have already weighed in on the matter. Pakistan has won, some say. India should have stopped the plane in Amritsar, they tsk, tsk. India is a "soft state" for terrorism, others opine. The government caved into terrorists and terrorists have won, they conclude. Let us take a look at these. Has Pakistan won? Won what? The fight against terrorism is not won with a single battle. As one observer on a discussion list pointed out, "Pakistan has not won a Damn Thing. They got only three terrorists. We kill more than three terrorists in Kashmir nearly every single day and we also capture 5-6 terrorists in Kashmir nearly every single week".

Could the Indian Government have stopped the plane in Amritsar? On hindsight, yes. But how much information did the government have? The government acted fairly quickly delay refueling. The Indian Commando Unit (the National Security Guard known as the "Black cats") were not in Amritsar at that time but in Kashmir. While the police or the army units in Amritsar could have been rushed to the airport and tried to storm the plane or shoot up the plane's tires could they have done so with the information they had? Storming a plane is not easy. The operation has to be conducted by highly trained personnel who have access to special equipment and arms and ammunition. Smoke bombs, stun grenades, equipment to climb into the plane, careful preparation for the storming and so on. Having written my dissertation on hostage negotiations, let me tell you that even in a "simple" barricaded gunman situation where a distraught or angry husband or boyfriend is holding his wife or girlfriend or baby hostage, the amount of planning that goes into negotiating with the hostage taker or disarming or shooting the hostage taker is enormous. The police construct an inner perimeter and an outer perimeter, where only the police and negotiating team is within the inner perimeter and there are all kinds of maneuvers and communication strategies involved to find out what the hostage taker has and what he wants. "Oh, we should have stormed the airplane and cut our losses short. Sure, we would have lost some passengers but we would have saved the rest and we would have killed off the hijackers" the Monday morning quarterbacks are saying. Oh, really? Let us do a short reconstruct of the situation, shall we?

The hijacking began in Nepal. If it had been a flight taking off from an Indian airport, we would have had access to more information about who was on board, what could they have taken in, etc. There must have been tremendous preparation by the hijackers in carrying out this act. We did not know how many they were; what arms and ammunition they were carrying; what were their demands; and what were their threats. The only information that was being transmitted was through the pilot who had a gun aimed at his head. They claimed they were carrying AK-47s. There was information that four people had been killed. The airport officials had to make their decision on the basis of what the pilot told them. There was no crisis management team in Amritsar. The decisions had to be made in Delhi and conveyed over telephone. The Cabinet had to meet. This was a decision for the top leadership. Would you as police chief, or army captain in Amritsar have shot the tires of the plane and been ready for the plane to be blown up with all the passengers inside? Or what if the government had indeed decided to stop the plane and given instructions for the plane's tires to be shot? Suppose we had shot the tires and/or tried to storm the plane and the hijackers had killed some twenty passengers before they themselves were killed by the police or soldiers, what would have happened? Simply this: the same Monday morning quarterbacks would have condemned the government for its rash and hasty action and the "unnecessary deaths" of so many passengers. The BJP would have been characterized as trigger happy, the government authoritarian, willing to use brute force unnecessarily, was fascist, or crazy.

The government caved into terrorists, they say. Did we in fact do so? The Indian people, including the family members of the hostages, were demanding that all passengers be brought back safe and alive. This was at a time when the hijackers were demanding $200 million and the release of thirty-six jailed Muslim terrorists. Could we have waited some more days and "worn out" the hijackers? The hostages had been cooped in the airplane for eight days. They had not shaved or bathed nor slept properly. They had been traumatized. The hijackers were playing good cop/bad cop and some of the hostages were succumbing to the Stockholm syndrome (that is, getting to think of the hijackers as "nice" or "friendly" and as "regular/ordinary" humans). The more the government had delayed, the more the hostages might have begun to like the hijackers and hated Indians, the Indian government. The Taliban had a gun aimed at our heads. Deal with hostage takers quickly and resolve it one way or another, they kept demanding. Would the Taliban given permission to the Indian government to airlift their commando force into Kandahar? Hrrmmph! Also remember, the hijackers were supposed to have sophisticated electronic and computer equipment through which they were communicating with their "handlers" as well as keeping track of the news.

Has India become a "soft target" for terrorists and will the Muslim mullahs and Pakistani agents become bolder in targeting India? Some of those media commentators, whose public presence makes them think that they can weigh in on anything, have opined so. Thankfully, there are still some wise and intelligent journalists in India. G. S. Bhargava, for example, wrote on Sunday, January 1st in Deccan Herald the same day the paper published a careless editorial. In his regular column, where he analyses Indian media, Bhargava wrote, "...it is the hijacking tragedy. It has brought into focus different styles of journalism with divergent motivations. First the most visible, namely private television channels, Pranoy Roy's Star News and Deepak Shourie's Zee News.... The treatment of the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft from the day one by these two TV channels faithfully reflected the motto voiced by Deepak Shourie.... In plain language, they have been using the occasion for blatant commercialism, to raise their viewership and ratings to garner more advertisement revenue. Their focus has been almost exclusively on human emotion by over-projecting the concern of the relatives of the hostages. According to an Indian Express report, one of the worked-up relations said that he had not been photographed so much even at the time of his wedding. With video cameras whirring in the front, even the most sober person will let himself or herself go. And that was what has happened. The agitated kith and kin of the victims of the hijacking had run berserk and nearly rioted even at the residence of the Prime Minister whose resignation they demanded. No wonder the message reached the hijackers at Kandahar to raise their ante.... Among the newspapers... the Indian Express stands out for having gone overboard. Either the editor's impulsiveness has been affecting the style of the correspondents - to a man, though there are many women among them, including a veteran like Neeraja Chowdhury, or scholarly Shekhar Gupta is trying to cover up the correspondents' impetuosity - the result has left a bitter taste in the mouth. For instance, the newspaper has taken it for granted that storming the hijacked aircraft when it stopped for about half-an-hour at Amritsar would have nipped the trouble in the bud. Wiser by hindsight, it has editorially suggested bursting the tyres of the stationary aircraft on the tarmac at Amritsar. That was the time when the hijackers whose number was uncertain were believed to be armed with AK-47s also. Panicking, they would have massacred the hostages. The situation clarified only after the plane went to Dubai where some hostages were released. The number of the hijackers and their armament were established".

But Mr. Bhargava did not know what was on his editors' minds. This is what Deccan Herald opined the same day Bhargava's article appeared. They said: "While the release of the hostages is welcome, the agreement itself is a defeat for India as New Delhi has partially conceded the hijacker's demands by releasing three hardcore militants - Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Sayeed.... Consequently, it is the terrorists who have emerged victorious from the confrontation of will and wits. Diplomatically, India would not have cut the sorry picture it has internationally, as having buckled to terrorist demands, if it had not adopted such an uncompromising and tough posture from the beginning and throughout the crisis with regard to the demands.... The release of the hard-core militants has dealt a severe blow to India's anti-terrorism operations. It will send terrorists the signal that New Delhi is amenable to pressure and that it can eventually be forced to deal with terrorists on their terms..." The editorial writer did not stop there. S/he said: "But where the government will need to take the blame is with regard to its mishandling of the crisis in the critical first few hours of the hijack when it failed to rescue the hostages in a commando operation at Amritsar airport".

What can India do now? Have we become softer targets for terrorists? The way against terrorists and terrorism should continue and should be escalated. One very quick and retributive action would be to court-martial the thirty three other militants whose release the hijackers had sought and execute them. India has the death penalty. It should be used in cases like these. The Israelis were quick and effective in responding to acts of terrorism. They exacted a price from those who encouraged or sheltered terrorists. I was told by a recently retired lieutenant colonel in the Indian Army that the army is fighting these terrorists with one arm tied behind their back. "We are victim to the political machinations of Delhi and Srinagar and that is why terrorism is thriving in the Kashmir Valley", this officer told me.

Second, we Indians have to decide it is time to decide. Article 370 should go. Bhutto believed that India would not let go of Kashmir. All of our political parties have said so. Kashmir is an integral part of India, they say. So, why do we continue with Article 370? It forces us to keep Kashmir and Kashmiris separate and special and a heavy, heavy burden. With the revocation of Article 370 the Indian government should do what the Chinese have done in Tibet: resettle the state. More than 300, 000 Hindus have been driven out of the Valley. Along with them resettle three million other Indians in the Valley initially. As long as we keep Kashmir a Muslim-majority state there will be secessionists in the Valley. There will also be poverty and backwardness in the Valley. Revoking the Article will enable Indians to own land and property in the State and bring in much needed development. They will also provide a bulwark against terrorist activities. What cussedness is keeping us from acting? What cussedness is making us bleed and pay such a heavy price? Our politicians and our fractured polity are to blame. Our "confused" secularists who speak from both sides of their mouths are to blame.

Revoking Article 370 is not the only solution. We could as well let go. Does Kashmir belong to us or not? If not, we should have the courage to say so and take the necessary steps to take what belongs to us and give away that which doesn't. Indecision on Kashmir is not deciding. We have paid too high a price already. Rupin and Rachana are the latest ones in the long list of people who have given their lives in this battle. For Rupin's sake and for Rachana's sake it is time to act.

Hostage taking and hostage takers

Hostages have been taken to achieve personal, political, or monetary ends since the time of recorded history. Ravana took Sita hostage. Abram's nephew, Lot, was taken prisoner by the armies of four kings and Abram's use of 318 selected men to rescue Lot has been characterized as a SWAT (special weapons and tactics) operation. However, it is claimed that the 1972 "Munich Massacre" which gave U.S. lawmakers the impetus to develop modern hostage negotiations. Now most major American cities have their own police negotiation teams and SWAT teams to respond to any hostage crises. What the Indian police should do is to train such teams in every major city. On a national level, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has developed negotiation strategies and techniques and teaches them to its own agents, to law enforcement and military negotiators from all over the US and to a number of US allies. I don't know if any of the Indian commando units have been trained in the US, or have received any help.

Negotiation with hostage takers, as opposed to tactical assault options, have become an increasingly accepted method of securing the release of hostages in most of the "domestic" hostage taking situations in the US The nature of hostage negotiations, in comparison to other types of negotiations, is unique. For example, police negotiators and hostage takers do not interact in the context of a relationship that has been previously defined; two, the police and hostage takers are likely to have little specific information about the other party; three, the demands of the hostage takers at the outset are unknown to the police and in the case of many "domestic" hostage situations, unknown to the hostage taker himself; and four, the negotiations take place in a clearly coercive context.

Why do people take hostages? The FBI groups hostage takers in four categories: 1) Mentally unstable or emotionally disturbed persons who take hostages either to force an issue or as a plea for help; 2) Criminals who are trapped while committing a crime and resort to taking hostages; 3) Prisoners who hold prison guards hostage during rioting/uprising in prisons; and 4) Terrorists who take hostages as an act of political extortion. These categorizations are important because police negotiators treat incidents differently based on the characteristics of the hostage taking situation. For example, negotiators are told not to argue with mentally disturbed individuals because such individuals are not capable of acting rationally; to provide support and understanding to those who have taken hostages because of some domestic dispute; and to remind criminal hostage takers of facts while trying to convince the hostage taker to accept his own physical safety in exchange for the hostages. The last category of hostage takers are the most difficult to deal with. The power equation between police negotiators and hostage takers in such a context is very much different than in the other three situations. The terrorist is willing to sacrifice himself and his hostages for the sake of his political or religious goals or to get his "message" across. Negotiations with terrorists are thus fraught with enormous and complex problems.

The police therefore seek those officers as negotiators who have good communication skills, who can exercise patience and who can stand long and tiring hours of work. While they do have professional psychologists/counsellors on their SWAT team, the police do not allow them to do the negotiating. These professionals are there only to monitor the situation, profile the psychological state of the hostage taker and provide advice on tactics the police might be able to use.

Success in hostage negotiation is not only a reflection of the usefulness of certain communication strategies but also a manifestation of the exercise of power. The police succeed by gaining and exercising control in such situations. The control they exercise is over space (by restricting the physical environment of the hostage taker); over time (by not allowing the hostage taker to rush them into doing things); and over interaction (by managing the flow of conversation such that the hostage taker is maneuvered into a position from which the police want the hostage taker to be negotiating). The police cannot bring about successful resolutions to hostage crises if they are hampered in setting the ground for negotiations. Thus, the Indian government's efforts at negotiating with the hijackers should be seen in this context: the government did not have control over the situation and could not set the grounds for a "successful" resolution.

What is this control? Control has a two-fold manifestation in hostage negotiations. At one level, it includes containment of the incident within a single physical location. If the hostage taker is free to move from place to place (as it happened in the case of Flight IC 814) he has more chips to play poker with the police. He can raise new demands, alter old ones, raise the stakes and bargain harder for whatever he wants. Thus it is that the police begin with cordoning off the place where the hostage taker holds the hostage. Once bound in place, the hostage taker loses most options and he himself becomes a hostage to the event. At another level, the police negotiator is responsible for guiding and directing the behavior of the hostage taker. This form of control is said to represent the most significant communication challenge to the negotiator.

Both the police and the hostage taker wield power. Power guides negotiations and the resolution of the crisis. I will not go into any deep theoretical discussions of power (Those interested in such a discussion might want to read my dissertation, circa 1992!). However, it might be useful to think of power as including four dimensions - the ideological, the institutional, the relational and the individual. Power is embedded in a set of prevailing social processes that define what is good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, right or wrong. This is the power of ideology. A terrorist is less susceptible to such power because he comes with his own ideology. In many ways, the police just cannot counter such power. That happens to be the "open" trump card of the terrorist. Political hostage takers or terrorists are not bound ideologically to the order of society that the police represent. We could define such hostage takers as opponents of the prevailing social/political order and who compound the problem by victimizing innocent people (hostages) who become pawns in the political game between the two ideological factions.

Ideological power is expressed through rewards and punishments for doing something, good or bad, by institutions like the police or courts (institutional power). Power is generated, dissipated, or shared in interaction (relational power). For example, take the case of the hostages dealing with and responding to the hijackers and how the hijackers exercised relational power through a variety of tactics/strategies and how the hostages might have influenced the hostage takers. Individual power is the power that individuals bring to a situation - from their personalities to their weapons. Each dimension of power influences and is influenced by the other dimensions.

If you see the Indian Airlines plane hijacking in the light of the information I have presented you may be able to better appreciate the Indian government's reaction to the crisis. I am not saying that the government should be completely absolved of any incompetence or tardiness. But given the nature of the hostage taking by these Islamic terrorists who, by all accounts, seemed to have had thorough training in psychological warfare and who controlled "space" and "time", I believe the government could do very little.

My mother told me that she prayed all week for the safety of the passengers and crew. I heard that many Indians did so. However, the family of Rupin and Rachana Katyal seem to have missed out on the benign effects of those prayers. The agony and the tragedy that their families have suffered is difficult to contemplate. I don't know if prayers will help. But I shall pray nonetheless.

(Note: I did my PhD dissertation on hostage negotiations. The title of my dissertation is "The influence of power on hostage negotiation outcomes")

Originally published on Friday, January 7, 2000.

 
     
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