Look, what we have witnessed as “far back” as the the Beslan, Russia school siege (2004), one of the first shock-the-senses radical Muslim terror attacks should have been a signal. And then this proliferation, this relentless litany of recent politically-motivated bloodshed — the Charlie Hebdo shootings (January, 2015), the Bataclan Theatre attack (November, 2015), the Brussels airport and metro station attacks (March, 2016) and the recent spate of jihadi attacks on U.S. soil in San Bernardino, CA (December, 2015), the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, FL (June, 2016), and the ISIS-inspired bombings in New York City and New Jersey (September, 2016). To those trained in human behavior and religious inspired violence, maybe there are some investigative clues to be distilled from comparative analytics looking at both domestic and foreign attacks involving radical Islam — most recently, ISIS — claiming responsibility. They’re playing chess, these ISIS bastards. P-QR8=Q is chess notation for promoting a pawn to queen. ISIS has done just that…pawn to queen. And in doing so, they’ve changed the game.
We have to keep up.
The actions of ISIS in the Middle East have changed the calculus for hostage rescue and hostage negotiation operations. Their command of social media and technology sets them apart from many of their fellow pursuers of the Islamic jihad. Their emergence has led some experts on the Middle East like Jay Sekulow in his 2014 book, The Rise of ISIS, to comment on the ruthlessness of this Sunni jihadist organization, explaining: ISIS is so extreme that other well-known, radical Islamist and jihadist groups have not only distanced themselves from ISIS, they have also publicly condemned ISIS’s actions and even fought ISIS fighters directly. ISIS jihadists commit violence against fellow Muslims in violation of Islamic law; they routinely commit war crimes and engage in torture in violation of international law; and they also kill and threaten Christian, Jewish, and other religious communities. In short, ISIS is composed of religiously motivated psychopaths. And just how does one go about negotiating with psychopaths? You can’t. You must eradicate the threat that isn’t seeking a negotiated settlement.
And while ISIS has shown a technical savvy heretofore unseen in its depth and expanse, at the end of the day, they are still petty thugs taking things that do not belong to them and demanding recompense for their safe return. Except when the return of what is taken is not the goal after all. We know they have extorted a number of governments and private citizens for ransom payments, and even released some hostages following capitulation to ransom demands, but this is not always the case, as the example of freelance journalist James Foley makes clear. ISIS propagandists appear to have marked Foley for particularly brutal mistreatment from the beginning of his captivity— as shared by some of his since released fellow captives — and his videotaped “confession” and subsequent beheading. These were utilized as the heinous pièce de résistance in the initial ISIS videotape entitled “A Message to America”, released in August of 2014. An interview given by Foley’s employer at GlobalPost, Philip Balboni, to the Wall Street Journal on August 21st of 2014, indicate that ISIS demanded the exorbitant sum of $132 million dollars, and despite the earnest efforts from the news agency and others to raise the ransom, the stakes constantly shifted, appearing as if the terrorist organization was disinterested in an actual exchange, valuing the on-air execution of an American as paying a far bigger propaganda dividend than the simple extortion of funds could aid in supplementing their war coffers. Does this simply apply to American hostages? We have seen some released by Islamic groups — the Obama White House negotiated return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Guantanamo-held Taliban comes to mind — but we have yet to witness the release of an American captive held in Iraq or Syria by the ISIS/ISIL terror group in particular.
Interestingly, the lack of demands and the absence of an opportunity to negotiate terms to settle a hostage situation within the United States has also become an anathema to responding law enforcement teams and counterterrorism analysts and experts. Are hostage negotiators becoming a relic of the past? Sidney Lumet’s 1975 classic, Dog Day Afternoon, was the consummate ode to the utility of negotiations by law enforcement professionals trained to “keep the hostage-taker talking”. The fact is, in 2016 America, ISIS-inspired jihadists — in fact in almost all domestic active shooter massacres of recent vintage — the carnage has concluded and the assailant has often taken their own lives before the first responder arrives on scene or an entry team can make contact with the shooter.
In August of 2015, quietly turning in his sidearm and shield, one of the country’s premiere hostage negotiation experts, Jack Cambria, commander of the New York City Police Department’s Hostage Negotiation Team, retired from a fourteen year tenure overseeing a unit that was only formed in 1973. You will recall the 1970’s as being a decade that witnessed an explosion of aircraft hijackings, domestic terrorist attacks from radicalized leftist groups, and bank robberies that resulted in hostage-takings. Cambria learned lessons early in his career from the architect of that groundbreaking NYPD negotiation unit whose motto is “Talk to me.” The HNT was founded by then Detective Harvey Schlossberg. Think 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon.
Now owning a Ph.D. in Psychology, Dr. Schlossberg currently serves on the faculty at St. John’s University — where I also serve as an adjunct assistant professor — and is credited with many of the current unit’s protocols and practices — one of which is how listening is much more important than talking. But will committed religious zealots and psychopaths or disaffected and mentally unstable loners seduced on the internet by ISIS’s clarion call respond with predictably traditional conflicted human criminal behaviors? I would submit that much as we presume a hostage negotiators determined practices to “keep them talking” and “stalling for time” in order to see a peaceful resolution or date/time of the crisis responders’ choosing to bring the situation to a swift and successful tactical conclusion may be our best “worst option”, many in the critical incident response arena are starting to move away from that model during the age of ISIS, and urging that in hasty and deliberate planning, as the George Patton adage goes, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
In this business, one must be a student of history in order not to have it repeat itself. And, there have been a few seminal moments in recent modern history that have forever changed the manner in which law enforcement responds to a crisis. Recall the shock at the 9/11 hijackers’ disinterest in ransom, prisoner releases, or negotiations. Using domestic airliners as missiles changed the game. This was just such a seminal moment. Go back just a little further and recall the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s kidnapping and slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the August 1st, 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooter, Charles Joseph Whitman, who killed twelve and wounded thirty from his perch.
Both of these incidents helped to usher in a new era of concern for public safety and security and directly led to the formation of Counterterrorism Teams and Special Weapons and Tactics Teams (SWAT) as the world, and America, struggled to grapple with depraved minds, perverted religious orthodoxies, and civilian access to high-powered assault weapons. Just as these incidents changed foreign and domestic law enforcement’s perspectives, so, too, did the tragedy at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. As a then member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), the lessons learned all centered on the on-scene law enforcement’s paralysis by analysis, the inherent difficulty in immediately coalescing disparate “parts” of arriving “good guys” into a homogeneous tactical unit set to rapidly go to the sounds of the guns — which in military terms translates to a hyper-speed movement to contact.
The Orlando nightclub attack involved an initial slaughter followed by communications from the assailant who was holed up in a bathroom with hostages. No one can say for sure why he ceased the carnage. His discussions with police and media did not indicate he wanted to negotiate. He certainly had plenty of time and he had available munitions to extend his indiscriminate shootings and purposeful slaughter. The arriving tactical team chose to wait. This decision has been criticized in some corners for the caution taken — similar to responding law enforcement’s hesitancy to immediately engage the killers during the aforementioned Columbine massacre. Some current members of America’s top counterterror teams tell me that the time for negotiations in the age of ISIS is over.
Hostage negotiation as a profession, just might be approaching obsolescence. Why, you ask? Because in the minds of the mentally ill and psychopathic religious orthodoxy adherents, they do not appear to be seeking to extend their fifteen minutes of fame. Death is the outcome they crave. They seek the attention for their cause. The adulation that their mind tells them they will receive from the jihadist movement in the Middle East. This is all the hostage rescuers need to know. Their operational calculus turns into simple arithmetic. Go get the bad guys. Accept a higher level of risk that comes with a dynamic entry. Save as many innocents as can be saved. Know that inaction can lead to even more deleterious results that are already at hand. Go get the bad guys. NOW!