Consensual Dispute Resolution

Hostage Negotiations: To Concede or not to Concede?

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Hostage negotiations are one of the most critical areas of research in the recent times and require the work of skilled negotiators and psychologists to determine whether or not a no concession strategy must be adopted. Hostage negotiations are of several types. First, wherein, the criminal takes people hostage in the execution of a robbery where there is virtually no escape; the second, wherein, law enforcement arrives on scene before the successful completion of a crime and thus hostages are taken in; and the third, wherein workplace discord or marital discord escalates into a hostage situation (Miller 2005, 278). An in-depth analysis of the situation at hand will help determine the nature of the concession strategy used. This article analyses the use of the no concessions strategy in the new age of terrorism. 

The most widely known cases of hostage negotiations are in the realm of terrorist activity. But change in terrorism over the years means that our approach to these situations must change. Terrorism, in the years preceding 1985, was characterized by their hesitance in attacking infrastructure with large scale use of detonations. In countries like the USA, terrorist activities had troughed in the period between 1970-73 as this was a period of relatively more stable political life and most terrorist activities targeted businesses (Chasdi 2012, 148).  Effectiveness and extensive casualties mark the new face of terrorism. The ‘new’ terrorist focuses on mass indiscriminate killings which means something more than just drawing attention. It reflects a more ideological violence with a desire for vengeance (Bremer 2001, 23-24). In this environment, we need to rethink whether we must employ a strategy of negotiating concessions with terrorists or adopt a no concessions policy. 

Before getting into adopted strategies, there needs to be a distinction made between a negotiation and a concession. For this purpose, let us consider the example of a bank robber taking hostages. A negotiation would be the reduction of the sentence that the bank robber would get upon freeing the hostages. A concession would be to let the bank robber off scot free in exchange for leaving the hostages unharmed. 

No country outwardly adopts a policy of conceding as it is not good for public policy. That being said, most governments follow a quiet no concessions doctrine because giving in to one terrorist is thought to be a signal for other terrorists that violent behaviour will be rewarded, notwithstanding that there is no empirical evidence to prove the copycat thesis. In fact, the success of the no concessions doctrine depends on the nature of concessions, similar or competing motives of the terrorists and their perception of the concession as being a reward or punishment (Georzig Talking to Terrorists, 1-11). 

So, in the new age of terrorism that is characterized by an ideological violence, we need to identify a means to create a negotiating table where there existed none. The size of the terrorist organization and number of terrorists who have taken people hostage was considered inconsequential as the negotiating strategy remained the same. However, in the present day, it is important to identify who the terrorists are: are they part of a larger network or do they work alone? This would in turn help evaluate how strong of a position the government has in comparison to the terrorist. For example, a singular terrorist can be negotiated with on demands, such as that of food and water, and the greyer areas, like that of of freedom from prosecution, need not be conceded to as they often tend to work from a zone of unachievable beliefs and personal trauma. But if the terrorist is a part of a larger network, they are pawns in a larger game and thus may or may not have a personal stake in the situation. This, coupled with a need for ideological vengeance, makes negotiating and persuading more of a challenge. 

Based on these considerations, the Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) or the Worst Alternative to Negotiated Agreement (WATNA) needs to be analysed. In a hostage situation, like a plane hijacking, the BATNA would have been that they would be able to land the plane somehow and save lives without the terrorists executing their plan. The WATNA would have been that they let the plane crash and focus on securing other transport to prevent further attacks. Clearly, the BATNA and WATNA don’t hold much ground in this scenario. 

Apart from this, the present day terrorists are difficult to negotiate with because we are attempting to create value wherein the negotiating parties are coming from two different ideological worlds.  This means that the terrorists don’t want to amass riches or rob someone. What they want is to prove a point and thus are not interested in any kind of negotiation. In this kind of a situation, we are posed with a problem. On the one hand, we need to ensure the hostages are released and thus the government may agree to concede to demands to get them to come to the table to negotiate. On the other hand, conceding to them will not be any good and negotiating in bad faith might lead to harsher repercussions later. It is impossible to negotiate in good faith in the current age of terrorism as promises to concede need to be made to even get the terrorists to start talking to the government.  

Giving in to hostage demands can be done at a superficial level, such as that of food, water and the likes but to assure, in good faith, to concede to their demands is not be possible. Denying the terrorist from carrying out his plan has never been a strategy to win. (Abrahms 2014, 2-15) In this situation, the government must try to remove the potential value of the actions of the terrorist and not react to anything being done or said as terrorists often work to provoke the government. In the 9/11 attacks, the Al Qaeda said that Bush’s militaristic response to the attack played right into their game plan. 

Nevertheless, there is no binary existent for the concession- no concession debate. On a situation by situation basis, the policy must be adopted or shelved, with careful regard not to act in an extreme manner. It was found that that the Al Qaeda found those campaigns successful where the government had conceded to the demands or had reacted to the situation upon being provoked. (Abrahms 2014, 2-15) Therefore to concede or not to concede cannot be a one-size-fits-all answer but what needs to be kept in mind is that whatever be the strategy, it must be thought out beforehand so that the government may respond to an attack instead of reacting to it.  

[This post has been contributed by Aaditi Pradeep, a first year student of Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat]


  1. Gaibulloev, Khusrav and Todd Sandler. “Hostage Taking: Determinants of Terrorist Logistical and Negotiation Success.” Journal of Peace Research 46, no. 6 (2009): 739-56.
  2. Abrahms, Max. “Deterring Terrorism: A New Strategy.” Perspectives on Terrorism 8, no. 3 (2014): 2-15.
  3. Bremer, L. Paul. “A New Strategy for the New Face of Terrorism.” The National Interest, no. 65 (2001): 23-30.
  4. Georzig, Carolin. Talking to Terrorists. Madison Avenue, NY: Routeledge. (2010)
  5. Chasdi, Richard J. “Terrorism in North America (Canada, United States, Mexico), 1970 – 2010: A Research Note.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 4/5 (2012): 145-59.
  6. Fereidoun, Amir. “Terrorism: Radical Islamic Terrorism.” Harvard International Review 7, no. 6 (1985): 45-46.


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