Held in Captivity: The Psychological Trauma of a Hostage

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September 15, 2014 10:30 EDT

Like Foley, Haines and Sotloff, hostages who are held by terrorists undergo psychological torment prior to their execution.

It is highly distressing when we see a hostage paraded in front of a camera by terrorists. The brutal murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and now the British hostage David Haines on September 13, followed a similar pattern to that of Daniel Pearl, a journalist who was murdered in 2002 in Pakistan. Following 9/11, Pearl was among the earliest of many Westerners to be butchered in the name of some terrorist group that believed it could influence the foreign policy of a given country.

At the point of their deaths, these four murdered people looked very similar in that they had minimum clothing on: Pearl wore a cheap tracksuit top, and Foley, Haines and Sotloff had the now familiar orange jumpsuits that are supposed to reflect those held in Guantanamo Bay. All four men had their hands restrained: Pearl in front and the other three  behind their backs. In Pearl’s case, a terrorist read out a script and then the heinous act took place. The other three had to read their own script prior to their tragic death.

In all four cases, the men appeared to show no emotion, almost as though they were going through another trial run. They had probably done this on numerous occasions, starting at a very basic level such as a mock execution.

The Trauma

In such instances, terrorists will burst into a cell and the kidnapped victim would be taken by surprise. The hostage would be blindfolded and dragged out while being kicked, punched and beaten as the captors take them to a location where their “faults” are read out — either being American or British, spying for Israel or some other trumped up charge. Then a weapon would be pointed at the captive or held to their head — the trigger pulled and the click of a hammer hitting a firing pin, but no rounds in the weapon. Such trauma would be beyond belief.

At that point, the prisoner would be dragged back to their cell. This mock execution would be repeated several times. Each time it happens, the hostage would think, “Here we go again.” Then there would be slight changes introduced, depending on the political climate at the time, until the kidnappers feel the time is right.

It is highly distressing when we see a hostage paraded in front of a camera by terrorists. The brutal murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and now the British hostage David Haines on September 13, followed a similar pattern to that of Daniel Pearl, a journalist who was murdered in 2002 in Pakistan. 

The “sentencing” statement would be dictated to the captive or they would have to read what someone else has written — probably having read it so many times that they know most of it by heart. Without realizing, the hostage will have rehearsed their own death. But apart from the mental anguish of that mock execution, there is more to the mental torment than most people are aware of.

Capture to Execution

The first phase any kidnapped victim has to endure is the initial capture. This would include rough handling, beating with fists or a weapon, and a blindfold or hood placed over the head to disorientate and block out some of their senses. Once in a safe area for the kidnappers, the victim would undergo a quick search to remove all of their possessions, most of which would be stolen.

The initial reaction of the new hostage would be confusion because of the sudden impact and unexpected violent nature as to what had just occurred, along with uncertainty as to what happens next. At some point, they would feel anger for allowing themselves to be placed in a vulnerable position. They would be in disbelief at what is happening to them, as some journalists undergo training for such a situation. This falls under the category of “shock of capture” and “dislocation of expectations” — in other words, “It will never happen to me.” All victims undergo the same or similar feelings.

Once the captive is in their new location, one that may be temporary, they would start to be subjected to two types of pressure: self induced pressure and system induced pressure. Both types bring on mental demands and the slow realization that the desolation will start to take effect.

Self induced pressures are feelings that are brought on by the hostage — their own thoughts, feelings and actions. They would go through fear of the unknown and fear of being killed: Will anyone know they have been taken? Along with this, the hostage would go through fear of the environment such as hearing doors banging and keys jangling, as the prisoner would wonder if it is their turn to be killed, tortured or beaten.

There would be thoughts of escape but, if captured with others, there would be fear of retribution against those who remain behind. A difficult decision to make and, if those who are with them are close friends, it makes matters worse. Later, if held in captivity for a long period with other prisoners, those feelings would also exist.

If they are a leader of a team, then feelings of failure and/or guilt would start to gnaw at them —  actions the leader took that had led them into that situation in the first place. Although they may not realize it, the chances are that in a lot of cases the operation to kidnap someone has been preplanned. They would feel guilty about any mistakes they had made. It would not matter how small or large they seemed, the leader or an individual would analyze every move that had put them in that situation.

In some cases, people have been taken prisoner by a criminal gang, either on purpose or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Often, in situations such as these, captives would be “sold up the chain” to the highest bidder, which usually results in an unpleasant ending.

The Islamic State (IS), a jihadist group that has seized land in Iraq and Syria, recently said it would execute a British hostage who was captured. Haines, a Scot from Perth who was taken hostage in March 2013 while working for a French relief agency, was the latest victim of IS’ brutality. 

There would be mistrust, boredom and loneliness, which play major psychological roles. Depression and despair would set in very quickly, as you would not be in control of any of your actions. Your captors would ensure that. A need for constant alertness would add to the captive’s distress, as they would attempt to stay one step in front of their captors.

System induced pressures are those that are placed upon a captive by their kidnappers. They will ensure the captive undergoes severe discipline and be punished for the slightest thing. This would be part of a conditioning phase, so the captive becomes reliant on those who are holding them prisoner.

Their diet would be small and disgusting and, if lucky, they would be fed on scraps. The guards get the better food and whatever is left, if any, would be fed to the prisoner. The effect would be starvation and illness, which would break down the will of the captive and result in drastic weight loss.

Confinement and enforced idleness would play a huge psychological factor, coupled with everything else that would leave the prisoner feeling as though they are losing the will to live. They would suffer from a lack of sleep due to hunger pains, desolation and torment of the mind — having no news of the outside world and no knowledge of what is being done to secure their release.

During the retake of Fallujah in 2004, US forces found three detainee centers in the Iraqi city. Below buildings, there was evidence of atrocities carried out by Islamists. In some cases, locations showed bloody handprints on walls and sand that had been used to clear up blood on the floor. Torture had been used, but it was unknown as to whether this was a source of retribution, sectarian-related or against Western hostages.

However, people like Nicholas Berg, Kenneth Bigley and Margaret Hassan would have been held in such places and tortured before their deaths. Photographs of Bigley were found at a location in Fallujah. Torture can be described in many forms, but it was clear that the hostages in these locations had undergone such severe brutality that is highly distressing.

A very sensitive issue is rape, involving both men and women. Female captives have a tendency to accept that this will happen to them, but males do not give it a second thought. If held in a collective group, it is not the act that tends to upset the unfortunate victim, but how they are treated by fellow prisoners when they return. There would be no hostage/captor bonding, as the terrorists would treat their prisoner like an animal, which detracts them from being looked upon as human beings.

There would be pressure on the captors, especially if they keep up with the press. News of a failed US rescue attempt — as with Foley — means they would know that Special Forces are attempting to locate the hostages and kill their captors. The problem with this type of hostage taker is that, should there be a rescue attempt, there is no guarantee of a positive outcome. If the kidnappers are threatened, they will not hesitate to kill hostages prior to fleeing.

Negotiating With Terrorists

At the recent NATO summit in Wales, US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to never enter discussions with terrorists, and ruled out paying ransom money for the release of a hostage. In the past, suspicion by some countries had led others to believe that ransoms had been paid to seek the release of a detainee. Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who was captured by terrorists in Iraq in 2005 and released a month later, was thought to have been freed after a ransom was paid.

The Islamic State (IS), a jihadist group that has seized land in Iraq and Syria, recently said it would execute a British hostage who was captured. Haines, a Scot from Perth who was taken hostage in March 2013 while working for a French relief agency, was the latest victim of IS’ brutality. While Foley, Haines and Sotloff read out on “statements” that declared their executions were a result of US air strikes on IS targets, at this point, Britain has only supplied aid to refugees but is seen as an ally of Washington.

Let us also not forget that as well as those unfortunate Westerners who have been primitively and savagely murdered, there are others from different nationalities that have undergone the same fate: Abbas Medlej, a Lebanese soldier who was captured in August and beheaded by IS militants, and an Iraqi Kurd who was killed on August 28. IS has also carried out executions of Sunnis and Shiites, including Syrian and Iraqi soldiers.

The wife of Haines accused the British government of letting an innocent man die because they refused to pay a ransom. However, the monetary value is of no consequence. Rather, it is the demands that would need to be met in the future that is alarming. After all, if you give a child a sweet, it will only come back for more. If governments give in to terrorist organizations, groups such as IS would be bolstered and wreak further destruction. IS would not only demand more ransoms for funds, but it would also realize that its goals can be achieved in this manner. This is something the international community does not want to encourage and cannot afford to do so.

Indeed, it is an unfortunate set of circumstances for those who are held in captivity and murdered because of demands on a government that cannot be met. The grief, misery, pain and torment of those who are doomed to die and what they must go through are beyond a normal person’s thoughts.

Since the murder of Haines, another British hostage has been selected to be killed by IS militants. Alan Henning from Manchester was captured by IS when it took the Syrian city of al-Dana in January 2014. It is almost certain that Henning will soon be paraded in front of a camera in an orange jumpsuit.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Alex Skopje /


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