November 23, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Hostages to Terror

• Recent terror attacks have highlighted the expanding role that hostages have come to assume in terrorism in recent years

• Groups like the Islamic State have widened the definition of terror hostage to include entire cities, both during and in the immediate aftermath of attacks

• From Brussels to Boston, large cities have been completely shut down as police search for attackers; cities like Mosul and Raqqa have been held hostage for years

• As seen at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, The Bataclan in Paris, and the Raddison Blu in Bamako, initial attacks focus more on active-shooter carnage than achievable demands.


As Brussels enters its third day of lockdown—with its metro, schools, many businesses, and parks shuttered—the world is witnessing the expansion of what it means to be a terrorist hostage. The days of high-profile demands have long-since passed; terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, as well as the many others who follow the ideology of bin Ladinism, prefer a high body count instead. Terrorist groups now compete to top previous casualty totals and to dominate media coverage.

The role of hostages in terrorism continues to evolve. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda still kidnap individual hostages when they can; these unfortunate victims are either then held for ransom—a tactic that brings in a fair amount of revenue—or savagely and cinematically executed for propaganda purposes. The Islamic State may have achieved global notoriety by killing Western hostages, but the local populations in Iraq and Syria suffer on a much larger scale. Families routinely sell all their worldly possessions in order to gain the release of kidnapped family members; those who do not pay share the fate of those who will never be released, such as the Shi’a, Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities of the region.

The definition of a terror hostage has now expanded to include entire cities and societies. The days following a terrorist attack are filled not just with grief and shock, but lockdowns, false alarms, and genuine threats. After the November 13 attacks, parts of Paris appeared as if under military occupation, as heavily armed law enforcement raided the locations of 'known wolves' in the hopes of not only arresting those involved in the attacks, but disrupting a potential ‘next wave.’ While societies suffering the aftershocks of terror may indeed overreact to perceived threats, further waves of attacks are a genuine concern. Police and law enforcement are left to respond to threats with demonstrable intensity; the savagery of terror attacks, in which civilians are taken to be systematically slaughtered, leaves little room for restraint.

It is not only the target cities that become hostage to terrorism. Brussels, the home of NATO, has been essentially shut down for three days due to ongoing and credible concerns regarding a local terror cell. Several of the Paris attackers lived in Brussels, and though the city itself was not attacked, it was just as much hostage as Paris in the aftermath of the attacks—if not more so, given the scope of the shutdown. The presence in a city of a fully committed, equipped, and capable cell holds entire neighborhoods and districts hostage to justifiable fears.

The incident of city-scale hostage-taking is not exclusive to Paris or Brussels. Last week’s al-Qaeda-affiliated attack on the Radisson hotel in Bamako, Mali, killed at least twenty people. The attack was an active-shooter slaughter along the lines of the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, that left 67 dead and many more wounded. The 2004 Beslan school massacre in North Ossetia that killed 385, many of them children, is yet another tragic example of taking hostages for hostages' sake—rather than to realize a set of demands. Likewise, the search for the two suspects in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings brought parts of the city to a standstill for several days. The proliferation of bin Ladinism—and the sheer number of global terror targets—ensures that there will unfortunately be more Paris or Beirut-style attacks in the foreseeable future.


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