Lessons from Terrorism Negotiations and the Deal for Gilad Schalit

For more than a decade, I studied terrorism and hostage negotiations.  In the course of that work, I interacted with some of the most prominent people here and abroad who were involved either as negotiators or response team members in hostage and barricade situations. There was NYPD Captain Frank Bolz, arguably the best hostage negotiator in the business. There was the Dutch psychiatrist, Dirk Mulder, a negotiator whose skill was legendary throughout Europe. There were the members of the then West German GSG9, whose Entebbe-style raid at Mogadishu was studied at war colleges. But one of the most memorable of my encounters was with an Israeli general who was in charge of some of Israel’s most difficult hostage and barricade situations. In preparation for my interview, I studied a number of the assaults he commanded. I noticed that no terrorist survived any of those assaults.

This was in the mid-seventies, when Palestinian terrorist groups were secular, leftist in orientation, and had not yet embraced jihad or suicide.The Palestinian operations teams required an escape plan. There had to be the chimera of survival, even if none existed in reality.

In the course of the interview, I said to the general that I had noticed that in none of the assaults he commanded did any of the terrorists survive, and I asked him why.

His initial response was evasive. He talked about the confusion that takes place in an assault, the impact of automatic weapons on a firefight, and other aspects of military tactics.

I persisted. Zero was an improbable number.

Finally, with some annoyance he looked at me and said, “So you notice that.”

“Yes,” I responded, “that’s the point of my question.”

He relaxed a bit, smiled a knowing smile, looked me dead in the eye, and without emotion said, “They notice it too.”

They did. Such Israeli tactics tore the enthusiasm from secular terrorists. Such organizations as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were harvesting their training cadre, their seed corn, in order to conduct operations.

The point this Israeli general made was similar to a response Frank Bolz gave when someone once asked him why in the course of negotiations he didn’t promise everything and deliver nothing. In the inimitable wisdom that made Bolz the icon of hostage negotiators, he responded by saying that a negotiation was not just about that single hostage situation. It was also about hostage negotiations yet to come. If he lied, that would come back to haunt him.  He couldn’t promise everything, but every hostage taker at the other end of the telephone trying to make a decision about what to do would know that if he struck a deal, it would hold. That credibility preceded all negotiations. It was as inherent to the process of negotiation as it was intrinsic to the outcome.

Although hostage and barricade situations involving terrorists seldom occur now, and the negotiation protocols used with terrorists who wanted to survive do not work with terrorists who want to die, the primary lesson of those days is still important. Hostage negotiations are not about one incident. Each and every incident is a vehicle for communication to many different audiences, including the next group of terrorists.  What you do in any one incident has an impact on the course of future events. This is why Frank Bolz didn’t promise something he couldn’t deliver. It was why an Israeli general commanding high-profile assault cases used the terrorist survival rate to send a message to those who contemplated going on the next mission.