On December 15, 2014, at 9:45 a.m., Man Haron Monis walked into the Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney’s central business district and took 17 people hostage. Shortly thereafter, images of the hostages holding up a black flag with Arabic script captured the world’s attention, leaving little doubt about the hostage-taker’s motives. The self-declared, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) sympathizer managed to gain worldwide publicity for 16.5 hours, until the New South Wales Police Force tactical team eliminated him following an eruption of violence inside the stronghold that also cost two hostages their lives.[1] Then on January 9, 2015, a chain of events that started in Paris with the shooting at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo led to two simultaneous sieges. The Paris attacks ultimately cost a total of 17 people their lives (not including the three attackers, who also died).[2]

Both attacks in Sydney and Paris are prominent, recent examples of jihadist barricade hostage sieges, a scenario of very rare occurrence in the Western context over the last three decades. However, the quick sequence in which these attacks have occurred unsurprisingly has raised fears of a new trend, leading to a debate about the preparedness of Western security agencies to deal with such a scenario.

This article will contextualize the threat and response dynamics of barricade hostage incidents through an historical lens, followed by an examination of the characteristics of contemporary hostage sieges and their implications for counterterrorism policy.

Barricade Hostage Sieges in Historical Perspective
Barricade hostages sieges, defined as situations in which hostage-takers are holding hostages in a known location where containment is possible, have constituted a highly influential terrorist tactic. The live, on-the-scene broadcasts, minute-by-minute updates, dramatic scenes featuring hostage pleas and terrorist threats, and the possibility of instantaneous forceful resolution that they generate keep television viewers gripped. Further, the reality-show-like nature of the coverage, along with the opportunity for the terrorists to explain their grievances fully, are factors that usually succeed in generating a wide public debate about the moral dilemmas inherent in the options available to the responding government.[3]

Particularly during the era of traditional terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, when groups carefully attempted to strike a balance between instilling fear, attracting attention, and striving for legitimacy and support, these incidents constituted a highly useful terrorist tactic. The ability of barricade hostage incidents to attract wide, international attention provided terrorists not only with a highly suitable platform for the expression of grievances, but also the capacity to create pressure on the enemy government without necessarily being associated with the politically damaging act of killing civilians. The idea of taking hostages and placing the responsibility for their fate in the hands of the opposing government was a highly effective tool in attracting international sympathy for the terrorists’ cause, especially when the possibility existed to appear “merciful” by later releasing the hostages unharmed. Unsurprisingly, the era of traditional terrorism, in which terrorist groups were completely dependent on media coverage to spread their message, was particularly rich in incidents of barricade hostage-takings and airplane hijackings.

The incidents of this era were characterized by a relatively low level of advance preparedness by either side, the inability of hostage-takers to communicate with their commanders once the incident started, a low willingness to kill hostages, and incremental improvements of response strategies, such as the establishment of rapid response units and hostage negotiation teams. Since publicity has usually been one of the main goals of terrorist hostage-taking operations, the captors could often be persuaded that they had succeeded in their mission and that killing hostages would only hurt their cause in the eyes of the public.[4] The combination of officials stressing the attention the terrorists’ cause had already achieved and guaranteeing free passage has historically been the most common formula for the negotiated resolution of politically inspired barricade incidents. Such an outcome is sometimes called the “Bangkok Solution,” a term referring to the 1972 incident in which members of Black September took over the Israeli embassy in Thailand, but after 19 hours of negotiations agreed to release their hostages and drop all other demands in return for safe passage out of the country.[5]

Sieges in the Era of the “New Terrorism”
In the next 20 years, however, the trends in barricade hostage-taking changed with the rise of the so-called “new terrorism,” characterized by the dominance of religious ideologies, increasing lethality of terrorist violence, and growing preference for suicide terrorism. Firstly, with the rise of the “new terrorism,” barricade hostage incidents assumed a much less prominent role in the tactical repertoire of terrorist organizations. One of the main reasons for this development has been the changing nature of the terrorists’ goals associated with the religious nature of their ideologies, which limited the spectrum of demands that could be realistically accomplished via a barricade hostage siege. Secondly, the growing tactical and technological capabilities of hostage rescue teams and intelligence agencies have made the planning and execution of successful barricade hostage sieges an ever more challenging task.

Yet despite this rapid decline in the employment of this tactic, the era of “new terrorism” did, in fact, feature several prominent barricade hostage sieges, with the most prominent examples being the 2002 Moscow theater attack and the 2004 Beslan school siege, in which 129 and 334 hostages died, respectively.

Beslan, in particular, represented a nightmare scenario. A team of some 50 to 70 well-trained hostage-takers, who had seized more than 1,200 hostages, most of them children, were strategically positioned around the school along with 127 explosive devices that could be activated by three terrorists positioned in different parts of the building. The situation was intensified by the cold-blooded executions of 21 hostages on the first day and the merciless treatment of hostages who as of the second day of the crisis were denied access to food or water.[6] In the Beslan aftermath, alarmist pundits predicted the “inevitable” proliferation of similar attacks on targets in the West, but this never materialized.[7]

In fact, barricade hostage sieges all but disappeared from the repertoire of jihadist groups in the Western context, presumably because of the logistical difficulties involved in organizing such planning-intensive operations in the face of the tightened scrutiny of Western intelligence services. A barricade hostage crisis featuring multiple, well-armed attackers requires planning, training, and a great amount of synchronization and foresight. Given the fact that jihadist groups have faced great difficulties in successfully mounting a single, centralized terrorist operation on Western soil for nearly a decade after the 7/7 bombing in London, the general advice given by al-Qa’ida to terrorist sympathizers and supporters has been to conduct autonomous operations and to aim for less sophisticated and less challenging methods of operation.[8] This trend has made large-scale barricade sieges an unlikely tactic in the Western context.

The Mumbai Effect
Another important event that altered threat perceptions about response strategies to barricade hostage sieges was the Mumbai siege of 2008, which featured a seaborne attack on India’s financial capital via a synchronized assault on multiple targets by 10 attackers, who had clear instructions to kill as many people as possible before they themselves are eliminated in the fight. Such fidayeen operations are different from barricade hostage sieges in that their objective is not to hold hostages, but rather to buy enough time to achieve the greatest number of casualties.[9] This was especially evident in Mumbai where the gunmen were deceptively trying to portray themselves as hostage-takers, prolonging the operation to 60 hours and achieving a body count of 166.

The effect of Mumbai has been a questioning of the traditional contain-and-negotiate response to terrorist barricade hostage sieges, with the fear that negotiations only buy more time for the attackers to kill more people. On the other hand, it is important to realize that fidayeen attacks are highly fluid and that the scenario can rapidly shift from an active-shooter attack to a barricade hostage siege (if the terrorists panic and chose to survive or if they come across a high value target)[10] or into a suicide bombing (if the attackers are equipped with suicide belts). This fluidity creates tremendous challenges for response, as the dynamic interplay between negotiation and tactical strategies will not always be clear and may change several times during the course of a single incident. In any case, the rapid global proliferation of fidayeen tactics that followed the high-profile Mumbai attacks has marginalized traditional barricade hostage sieges within the tactical repertoires of terrorist groups even more.

In Amenas
Seemingly out of the blue, the above reality changed on January 16, 2013, with the attack on the Tiguentourine gas plant in In Amenas, Algeria, where a four-day siege left 40 hostages dead after the Algerian army stormed the location. During the siege, extensive negotiations took place throughout the first day and a half of the crisis between representatives of Statoil and BP on one side and English-speaking hostage-takers on the other.[11] In these discussions, considerable progress was made from a hostage negotiation perspective, but this siege presented another problem–the inability of Western governments whose citizens were among the hostages to influence the actions of the Algerian military on the ground in In Amenas. The Algerian mindset is heavily influenced by memories of a very bloody terrorist campaign during the 1990s, and could be summed up as giving total priority to the elimination of the hostage-takers, with the objective of saving the hostages a distant second.

In the end, the progress made in the talks with the hostage-takers on the phones from London and Bergen, Norway, made little difference as the Algerian military offensive lead to the death of at least 40 hostages. And while the exact plan of the In Amenas siege is not yet clear, this attack stands out as a rare example of an al-Qa’ida barricade hostage siege and offers important insights into the group’s negotiating behavior.[12]

Sydney and Paris: A New Trend?
Given the remoteness of the In Amenas siege, it was not until the recent hostage incidents in Sydney and Paris that a change of perception was triggered in the West about barricade hostage sieges making their way back into terrorist arsenals. And even though both events are still fresh and only forthcoming investigations can reveal details that will be crucial to a more complete analysis, some preliminary observations about the contrasting dynamics of these attacks can be made.

Firstly, while the Sydney incident was designed as an actual barricade hostage siege, the attacks in Paris were most likely a product of improvisation in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, as opposed to a premeditated event. This distinction has important implications for response strategies as premeditation typically complicates both negotiation and tactical approaches when compared to spontaneous incidents, in which the perpetrator, with passing time, is likely to question the rationality of his or her decision to take hostages. While Man Haron Monis walked into the Lindt Café with some level of knowledge and expectation of the situation he was about to encounter, Cherif and Said Kouachi seemed to have barricaded themselves only out of desperation after being cornered, putting themselves in a comparatively weak position. This point of advantage for law enforcement disappeared rather quickly, however, after Amedy Coulibaly, who allegedly trained with the Kouachi brothers in the same terrorist cell, took a group of hostages in a supermarket in another part of Paris, forcing the need to synchronize responses in two different strongholds.[13] So while it was the Sydney siege that bore more signs of volatility in the beginning, the simultaneity of the two sieges in Paris swiftly turned this dynamic on its head.

Second, there is an important distinction that needs to be made with respect to the radically different motivations among the perpetrators of both attacks. While in both instances there was clearly an ideological dimension, the attack in Sydney was essentially a case of psychopathology in search of a cause, as opposed to a real terrorist incident. Monis was essentially a person in deep personal crisis, having been charged with more than 40 counts of sexual assault and as an accessory to the murder of his former wife.[14] His issues were deeply personal with important mental health implications, and in this sense the situation was a familiar territory for negotiators, who encounter mental health issues in up to 85 percent of all barricade-hostage incidents they routinely encounter.[15] Monis’ desperate attempts to link himself to ISIL were almost comical, given that he could not even secure the group’s flag and made its acquisition one of his demands. [16] And although ISIL posthumously embraced Monis in its English-language magazine Dabiq as a “Muslim who resolved to join the mujahidin of the Islamic State in their war against the crusader coalition,”[17] Monis had no organizational links whatsoever and was probably driven more by personal mental health problems than by ideology.

In contrast, the Paris attacks were carried out by people with a deep history of involvement in jihadist militancy, who had trained with al-Qa’ida in Yemen, and had allegedly met important al-Qa’ida figures such as Anwar al-Awlaki.[18] This commitment to a cause made negotiation attempts all the more challenging, as did the fact that the terrorists were holding hostages following a murderous rampage, putting them in a position of having little to lose.

Overall, the Sydney siege seems to have been more of a case of a mentally unstable individual acting out his issues through ideological channels, with no actual ties to a terrorist group. As such, the negotiation dynamics in this case did not need to deviate from standard, law enforcement frameworks for managing sieges involving lone and mentally unstable hostage-takers, whom negotiators are used to encountering on a regular basis.

In contrast, the Paris sieges involved lucid, highly radicalized, and ideologically fueled hostage-takers, with whom negotiations were bound to be challenging because they encompassed a subject that negotiators rarely encounter in their work. Further, the hostage-takers’ training in al-Qa’ida camps made them a more formidable foe at the tactical level. That being said, the extent to which the Paris attacks were centrally coordinated by al-Qa’ida is questionable.[19] It seems more likely that the planning, target selection, and execution was done by the perpetrators autonomously and that the attack was not originally designed to involve a barricade-hostage dimension. As more details continue to emerge, the Paris siege will present an interesting case study for lessons to be incorporated into further training of negotiators and hostage rescue teams.

Terrorist barricade hostage attacks are seemingly making a comeback with the Sydney and Paris scenarios already being dubbed as the “new normal.”[20] The fact that both ISIL and al-Qa’ida are praising these sieges and are trying to encourage followers to emulate them[21] only increases the likelihood of copycat attacks in the future. The good news for Western countries is that unlike the sieges of Beslan or In Amenas, which featured a large number of well-armed hostage-takers ready to repel a rescue operation or die along with hundreds of hostages, Sydney- and Paris-style scenarios represent a much lesser threat with respect to potential loss of life.

Quite simply, while barricade hostage sieges receive a lot of attention and involve great drama, they are extremely difficult to carry out successfully, especially for “lone wolves” and small groups of homegrown terrorists with limited resources and experience. The impact of stress and fatigue is difficult for perpetrators to predict or handle; effects of time will wear them down; and controlling a large number of hostages is difficult with only a single attacker or a small number of attackers. Moreover, police negotiation and tactical teams in Western countries have a significant capability in responding to these small-scale incidents. Unlike In Amenas or Beslan, Sydney- and Paris-style scenarios do not represent unfamiliar territory.

In conclusion, the most important recommendation for counterterrorism policy, besides continuing to strengthen negotiation and tactical response capabilities of law enforcement agencies, is to avoid panic and overreaction to the latest wave of attacks. After all, barricade hostage sieges provide more options to save lives when an attack is already underway than is the case with any other terrorist tactic. And while several attacks in recent months do not necessarily constitute a trend, in this light, a potential tactical shift away from shooting and bombing attacks toward barricade hostage sieges can be seen as a rather positive development.

Adam Dolnik is a professor of terrorism studies at the University of Wollongong in Australia as well as a trained hostage negotiator. His books include Negotiating Hostage Crises with the New Terrorists (2007) and Negotiating the Siege of Lal Masjid (forthcoming 2015).  

[1] Michelle Innis, “Sydney Hostage Siege Ends With Gunman and 2 Captives Dead as Police Storm Café,” The New York Times, December 15, 2014.
[2] “Charlie Hebdo attack: Three days of terror,” BBC News Europe, 12 January 2015.
[3] Adam Dolnik and Keith M. Fitzgerald, Negotiating Hostage Crises with the New Terrorists (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008).
[4] G. Dwayne Fuselier and Gary W. Noesner, “Confronting the Terrorist Hostage Taker,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (1990).
[5] Edward F. Mickolus, Transnational Terrorism: A Chronology of Events, 1968-1979 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 367.
[6] Adam Dolnik, “Negotiating the Impossible? The Beslan Hostage Crisis,” Whitehall Report 2-07 (London: The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, 2007), p. 46.
[7] John Giduck, Terror at Beslan: A Russian Tragedy with Lessons for America’s Schools (Golden, CO: Archangel Group, 2005).
[8] Adam Dolnik, “13 Years since Tokyo: Re-Visiting the ‘Superterrorism’ Debate,” Perspectives on Terrorism 2:2 (2008).
[9] Adam  Dolnik, “Fighting to the Death,” The RUSI Journal 155:2 (2010), pp. 60-68.
[10] This situation existed in Mumbai as well after the handlers in Karachi found out from the media about the presence of a government secretary and three ministers among the guests of the Taj hotel. Following this discovery, the handlers called the attackers in Mumbai and issued the following order: “Find those three, four persons and then get whatever you want from India.” Transcripts of phone calls between the gunmen and their handlers, http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/132160&date=2011-04-26.
[11] Statoil ASA Board of Directors, “The In Amenas Attack: Report of the investigation into the terrorist attack on In Amenas” (2013).
[12] Adam Dolnik, The In Amenas Gas Plant Siege (forthcoming 2015).
[13] Meghan Keneally, “Paris Terror Attack Live Updates: Suspects Killed in Both Hostage Locations,” ABC News, January 9, 2015.
[14] Paul Bibby and Louise Hall, “Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis was on bail for 40 sexual assault charges and accessory to murder,” The Sydney Morning Herald, December 16, 2014.
[15] Michael McMains and Wayman Mullins, Crisis Negotiations: Managing Critical Incidents and Hostage Situations in Law Enforcement and Corrections (Dayton, OH: Anderson Publishing, 2nd edition, 2001), p. 231.
[16] Bibby and Hall.
[17] Michael Safi, “Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis praised in Isis publication,” The Guardian, December 29, 2014.
[18] David Blair, “Charlie Hebdo attack: Anwar al-Awlaki – the al-Qaeda ideologue who may have inspired the massacre,” The Telegraph, January 9, 2015.
[19] Al-Qa’ida desperately needs some spotlight in its competition with ISIL. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video on January 14, 2014, via its official media wing, the al-Malahim Media Foundation, stating that, “We, AQAP, claim responsibility for this operation as vengeance for the messenger of God.” The video claimed that AQAP leadership, “chose the target, laid the plan, financed the operation, and appointed its emir.” However, no martyrdom videos or other hard evidence were offered in support of their claim, so questions still remain. Also, the fact that Amedy Coulibaly claimed to be affiliated with ISIL while the Kouachi brothers claimed to belong to AQAP casts significant doubt on the attack being centrally planned from abroad.
[20] Nancy Youssef, “The Paris Attack Is ‘The New Normal,’ U.S. Officials Say,” The Daily Beast, January 9, 2015.
[21] Safi.

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