In This Article
Illustrations by Cassandra Dale
So much had changed in just one minute. The look on my wife’s face had turned from beautiful and bored to truly terrified and alert. A man lay dead on the floor, and the murmur of many people chatting had been replaced by the tumult of gunfire and screaming. A dozen questions struggled for the limited attention my mind could give them. Why had these men burst into our conference? Why were they restraining some people and killing others? What could I do to save my wife?
After being herded together like cattle, my mind began to go numb. The number of questions had settled down from so many to just two. “Why?” was the first thought, although knowing why this was happening didn’t serve much purpose in the moment. The second question was the one that really mattered. “What am I going to do?” It was looping in my head, and I was running out of time to answer it. The men had almost reached us, binding nearby hostages with zip ties and duct tape. What should I do? I was out of time to decide.
In this RECOIL OFFGRID “What If?” column, we go out of the frying pan and into the fire of a violent hostage situation. To make matters worse, we’re not on our home soil; we’re in another country with a different way of handling this kind of crisis. For this “What If?” we’ll explore some precautionary plans and actions we can take before traveling overseas. We’ll also learn about a few “safety nets” for U.S. citizens abroad. Finally, we’ll look at some strategies to stay alive in a hostage situation. So much can change in a short period of time. When it happens, will you be ready for it?
You and your wife
Hotel, coastal city in the Balkans
Warm; high 88 degrees F, low 62 degrees F
The Setup: You work for a renowned finance company with holdings and offices all over the world. Your travels often take you overseas to consult with wealthy clients. Recently, you were invited to a conference at a five-star hotel in Southeastern Europe, specifically the Balkan Peninsula, to discuss the economy and advise on international holdings. The event is taking place in a city that’s a common tourist destination because of its picturesque beaches, so you decide to stay a little longer and make it a bit of a vacation. You bring your wife along as well, and plan for her to spend most days sunbathing at the beach and enjoying the local amenities while you’re at the conference. Although you’ve visited the area before, you’re not fluent in the native language, but are somewhat familiar with the instability and strife the region experienced after the fall of the Soviet Union.
As an experienced traveler, you do your due diligence to research any recent advisories on the State Department website, providing an itinerary to family members back home to make them aware of your travel schedule, flights, and overall agenda. You’ve also provided your contacts back home with a list of whom to call if trouble of any kind breaks out while you’re away, instructing them what to do if they don’t receive periodic status updates from you. The conference is expected to have over 250 visitors, many of whom are well-known within the investment industry as wealthy individuals, hedge fund managers, and financiers.
The Complication: The first day of the conference is a networking breakfast in the main ballroom on the ground floor where all the attendees get to mingle for a while before the keynote speaker takes the podium. You and your wife are socializing with some of the other attendees when you hear some commotion coming from the lobby immediately outside the conference room. You also notice two of the waiters look at each other and nod, before closing the double doors at either end of the room. While they both wait with their backs against the doors, you see one pull up his vest and remove a pistol from his waistband. He quickly hides it behind his back and glances around the room, a look of intense determination on his face.
As you’re about to say something, the other individual dressed as a waiter fires a gun into the air. Several members of the crowd scream, but the only escape route is blocked. One of the waiters opens the door and lets in half a dozen masked men holding what appear to be AK-47s. You can hear more commotion outside, but you can’t exactly discern what’s going on. As the armed men burst into the room, the door is locked again, and several of them start ushering the crowd into the dining area while shouting commands in broken English.
Everyone is herded into the dining area and told to get down on their knees and to place their hands behind their backs. As other men take positions around the perimeter of the crowd, several start zip-tying people’s hands and applying duct tape over their mouths and eyes. You hear one of the assailants ask a fellow attendee what his name is. The attendee responds with profanity and is promptly shot in the head. The crowd again screams while another assailant shouts, “Shut up and do as we say, or you’ll end up like him!”
As you look in stunned silence at the lifeless body, you see the shooter pull out his wallet, look at the ID, confiscate his phone, and hand it to the man behind him, who puts it in a duffel bag. As they bind and blindfold the attendees and work their way toward you, you scan the perimeter of the room. There are no exits except the ones being blocked. Wallets, purses, briefcases, and phones are being confiscated and examined as each individual is approached. You recognize one man as a wealthy Swiss banker you’ve dealt with before as the kidnappers approach him. As they look at his ID, one of the kidnappers nods to another — then they drag the man out of the room. You aren’t sure if this is a terrorist situation, a hostage ransom, or something else entirely. As the captors make their way toward you and your wife, you gingerly feel the outline of your small knife in your pocket, but you don’t have any other defensive tools, what do you do?
It’s been said that success is in the details. It’s also been said that a plan is just a list of things that aren’t going to happen. So you plan with high hopes but, in a situation like this, realize that you’ll probably have to improvise. A lot.
Upon receiving the invitation to attend the financial conference on the Balkan Peninsula, I’d begin my pre-trip preparation. This includes reviewing not only the business aspect of the trip, but also the additional personal time I intend to take with my wife.
In this case, the venue is very nice and in close proximity to shops, restaurants, and the beach. So we decide to stay at the venue site, which would also facilitate opportunities to network after hours. However, if the town/province/village where the event lodging is located appears to be in a dodgy area, I might consider making my own lodging reservations. I’d try to research the venue itself as well as the immediate area to see if past travelers report anything untoward — shake-downs by the police, items missing from their rooms, and so forth.
This type of conference is ordinarily attended by a select group. Knowing who else will be there ahead of time is valuable intelligence. Equally important is who isn’t going to be there. A collection of powerhouse personalities, or the conspicuous absence thereof, could impact how newsworthy the conference will be, which in turn affects how much outside interest it might provoke. This could be used to gauge the likelihood of intervention by the locals, whether through public protests or a bona fide threat to the event or its attendees. A review of foreign and domestic news sources in the days or weeks leading up to the conference could give an indication of possible disruption. If no alarm bells sound, or if they’re at least muted, then it’s on to the next phase.
Once I had a handle on the venue itself and the immediate area, I’d begin broader preparations. This would include checking the weather forecast for the region, as well as paying a visit to the State Department website to check for any advisories for the area and surrounding countries. The CIA also produces the World Factbook. While it won’t have late-breaking information like the State Department’s travel advisories, it contains useful information like the address of the embassy/consulate, primary languages, predominant religions, and small facts about local customs and courtesy. I might also run some Internet searches to figure out if there are well-developed criminal or terrorist organizations operating in the area.
Additionally, I’d check to see if there’s a U.S. Consulate or other governmental presence in or near the venue — “near” meaning you could walk there in an hour or less. If not that close, I’d want to know how far I’d have to travel to reach U.S. soil and what my options are to get there. If I didn’t have a rental car, I’d keep enough cash in reserve to take a taxi or bus to get me within walking (or running) distance of the embassy.
I’d make some predeparture lists for myself, including what clothes to pack; notes on exchanging currency; what personal security equipment, if any, could be taken and what electronic equipment to take.
I’d also make copies of my conference itinerary, and my wife’s intended day plans, and leave them with friends or family for safe keeping.
I’d establish a contact schedule that includes going over possible emergency code text messages with my wife, assistant, and best friend. The emergency codes would be simple three- or four-character text messages conveying the type of emergency, which dictates who should be contacted, i.e., the State Department, local authorities, boss, or family members. The presumption here is that I’d have little time, opportunity, or inclination to type a lengthy narrative via text.
When finalizing my reservations, if possible, I’d request a room no higher than the local fire engine ladder can reach. If not sure what that is, I’d request a ground or first-floor room.
I’d try to arrive at the venue in advance to allow some time to stroll the facility and surrounding grounds. I could use this time to make note of emergency exits, windows that can be opened, security cameras, fire suppression systems, security staff, and demeanor of hotel staff as well as others staying at the hotel. Ideally, I’d map at least two exit routes each from my room, the lobby, and the conference room. Also, if there appear to be hiding places to potentially escape a crisis, I’d at least give them a cursory inspection.
Beyond what’s mentioned above, there’s little more to do in terms of personal security because the likelihood of being able to carry a firearm or wear John Wick’s bulletproof suit is about as good as the Titanic making it to New York. If local law permits a knife, I’d carry that. Barring that, there are any number of improvised tools to fill the void. Even in places where “weapons” are banned, getting your hands on a fruit knife or paring knife is probably pretty easy. Impact and stabbing weapons can be fashioned from all kinds of things. They’re not pretty, and they’d provide little chance against armed and organized assailants, but having something on hand is better than nothing.
The company is paying a substantial sum for me to be there and is expecting a return on their investment. Absent a clearly defined threat, the two of us are committed to staying a few days at a five-star resort. However, I could still be on the lookout for anything suspicious. For example, you should take note if a group of military-aged males check in with six hard-sided golf
bags when there’s no golf course within 100 kilometers.
Upon noticing the wait staff engaging in what I think may be suspicious activity, I’d work to position myself between my wife and the questionable characters. If I felt it necessary, I’d tap her right wrist, our agreed upon signal for her to stay close. As the situation developed, I’d take advantage of that initial chaos to get my phone out and send one of my preprogrammed emergency texts to those trusted contacts back home. I’d make sure to clear the screen and delete the message out of my recent conversations bar.
While conventional wisdom says to get out of there immediately, I also wouldn’t have any idea what’s going on outside the doors and if the hotel had been completely taken over. Regardless, with the exits sealed, fleeing would no longer be realistic. Now it’s time to survive the next 15 minutes.
The commotion outside the door confirms that moving outside wouldn’t have led to a better outcome. The presence of multiple attackers armed with automatic weapons eliminates any realistic thought of active physical resistance. But even if escape and physical resistance are no longer on the table, there are still things you can do.
During the initial confusion when the hostage-takers are asserting control is the time to move deeper into the crowd and get near a table. I’d be looking carefully at how the hostage-takers disperse around the room, take note of who’s giving the orders and, if possible, who’s the most agitated.
Once the first attendee is killed, it establishes a precedent by the hostage takers that violence is an acceptable first-line response. At that point, trying to be an alpha dog is a certain path to suicide. This is an important thing to understand about your captors, and to understand it quickly. However, if simply murdering everyone was their intent, as was the case in Mumbai and Paris, they would’ve come in shooting indiscriminately.
The taking of the one individual could indicate this is a criminal venture, but that doesn’t necessarily change the circumstances for anyone else. While hostage response professionals prefer to deal with professional criminals, there’s no guarantee of a peaceful ending.
While the bind team is making its way through the crowd, I’d continue to tell my spouse to stay as close as possible, physically touching her if it can be managed. I’d also try to tell those around me to throw themselves on the floor if shooting starts and stay there until told to get up. Not all hostage rescue teams are equal, but most don’t shoot those laying still on the floor.
Once bound, attempting to break the zip ties is a nonstarter, unless I could do it without being noticed at any time or if I think things have gone so bad that physically fighting or running are the only choices left. Once bound, blindfolded, and gagged, the senses left are hearing, smell, and touch. I’d do my best to use them to try and track the movement of the hostage-takers and hear them speaking — even without understanding the local language, I could try to determine tone or urgency in their voices. I’d also try to sense changes in smell and vibrations through the floor. While the information gathered might have no practical use at the time, the better situational awareness I can maintain, the quicker I can respond when necessary.
In any hostage-taking scenario, once you’re through the first 15 minutes, it’s time to settle in and take a deep breath. The hostage-takers will have gotten through their initial adrenalin rush. At this point, it’s better not to give them any reason to pump back up.
In the immediate sense, all of the steps I took prior to the doors being blocked came to nothing except perhaps the emergency message I was able to send out and that I’m appropriately dressed for the season. Even if I still had a weapon or escape tools on me to break restraint, being under the constant watch of heavily armed men and surrounded by panicking people who will behave erratically in the face of a sudden disturbance, the idea of making a break for it, or trying to overpower the captors, is a losing proposition. What I could hang some hope on is that my distress signal was received back home and that my loved ones are reacting appropriately — passing all relevant information to U.S. officials.
How the situation is finally resolved is outside of my control. My survival is mostly outside of my control, except for the little things I was able to do before full lock-down. At this point, I have to remain calm and accept that I’ve done everything I can for the time being to give my wife and me the best chance of survival.
During preplanning I’d definitely want to research any recent instances of crime, terrorism, kidnapping, or theft in the area I’d be visiting. A great place to start this research is the U.S. State Department website (www.state.gov). This site is packed with useful advice, current travel advisories, and general warnings about many countries. Most useful of all, the website can guide you to embassy and consulate websites that provide addresses and phone numbers for the nearest embassy or consulate in your destination country. You’ll want to have these phone numbers and addresses on a durable card or sheet as you travel, since these outposts are your best means of help if you’re an American citizen in a foreign land. Ask for American Citizen Services when contacting the Embassy or Consulate, and make sure you bring both the emergency phone numbers and non-emergency lines.
To limit risks while traveling, I’d prefer to stay at the hotel where the event was taking place. This would mean fewer trips around town and less movement. Before leaving, I’d also provide my travel details to my contacts at home. They should know my flight information, hotel address, and phone number, as well as information about any separate venues. This could all go to one person with whom I’d check in on a regular schedule, or my itinerary could go to several trusted people. We’d establish a “check-in” call or email schedule, and I’d leave instructions on what to do if I missed one or more “check in” calls. If I were concerned that my cell phone wouldn’t work there, I’d also consider communication redundancy (like bringing a satellite phone in case my cell phone couldn’t get through).
Since I can’t exactly fly around with a personal arsenal, it’d certainly be a challenge to bring anything substantial for self-defense. A belt with a heavy buckle can be used as a whip, and a tactical pen can be used for stabbing. In our scenario here, I have a pocket knife, but belts, pens, and knives are poor substitutes for firearms.
When it comes to preparing for the conference, it would be a smart move to research the venue before attending. This could make me aware of issues that could throw up a red flag. Similarly, I might try to get a list of the attendees and have a private investigator attempt to vet any of them for shady backgrounds, questionable business dealings, or criminal association.
Once we landed in the Balkans, I’d check in back home and choose a respectable-looking ride to the hotel. The two main protocols we’d establish for keeping safe during our stay would be to stay alert together. We’d also want to work hard at blending in with the local population. This may not be possible when you bear no physical resemblance to your foreign hosts, as there’s little you can do about being a head taller and a different complexion than the locals, but it’s still worth the effort to minimize how much you stand out in a crowd. One simple trick is to avoid wearing a backpack. While people all around the world use backpacks, it seems to be a common part of the “American tourist” costume. Carry your things some other way. Once we arrived at the hotel, I’d also take a good look around at the property — inside and out. It’s important to know where the exits are located and what your different options might be. Finally, I’d check out the venue where the conference would be held. I wouldn’t expect to see any “deal-breakers” for our safety, but I’d reserve the final say on our attendance (and not leave it up to my employers, who aren’t seeing the things I’m seeing). For example, a last-minute venue change and sketchy transport to the new location might cause me to skip the event.
As soon as we’ve established that the crowd was being assailed and the situation was uncertain, I’d call the local U.S. embassy emergency line to communicate our distress. Even if I could only get in a few words in the time allotted saying that U.S. citizens were under attack at a specific hotel, it could start things in motion that would get the right professionals involved. I’d then leave the phone on and under the table so that they could continue to hear what was going on. At that point, compliance makes the most sense. One man had already been executed for mouthing off, and tensions are high on both sides of the situation.
Shortly after the initial conflict isn’t the right time to try to negotiate, fight back, attempt to bribe any of the assailants, or to try separating ourselves from the group. I’d encourage my wife to keep her head down and not speak or try to resist (there would be better times for that later). Compliance equals survival in the initial stages of violent hostage situations. We should attempt to remain compliant yet aware during the ordeal. Count the number of men, note all identifying traits — essentially become a good witness. Of course, I’d attempt to stick with my wife, but I wouldn’t expect it to go on that way indefinitely. Whether this event was a kidnapping for a ransom, or a politically motivated or terrorist attack, I’d bide my time before striking back — waiting until my captor’s guard is down.
I may be able to break my zip-tie restraints by reaching up high and then slamming my wrists down against my belly, or I may be able to pick it like a lock by finding something thin and hard to act as a shim under the locking tab. I’d also want to stay alert to Stockholm syndrome (also known as capture-bonding), which occurs in nearly 10 percent of multiday hostage scenarios. Named after a 1973 robbery in Stockholm, this event involved bank employees who became so attached to their kidnappers that they defended their captors even after they were freed. Sure, it’s possible that you could have mixed feelings toward your kidnapper when they provide food and drink or show their human side unexpectedly. But never forget that your captors are criminals who are denying your freedom. Keep your wits about you, pretend to be compliant, and maintain your watch for a set of circumstances that could allow attack and escape.
Despite our most meticulous trip planning, traveling abroad for business and pleasure can expose us to dangers we’d rarely face back home. That being said, our goal in this article isn’t to scare you away from travel or cause you to never leave your home, but rather to make you better prepared than you were before picking up this magazine. This situation could just as easily happen domestically.
Going on a big trip can be one of the most memorable times in your life, and with the right precautions (and some good luck), it can be filled with good memories. As you immerse yourself in different cultures and get away from your day-to-day routine, make sure you stay alert to your surroundings. Even in resort areas, which are usually safer than the surrounding areas, nasty things can happen. Sometimes, you just can’t escape your bad luck, but you can try to stay ahead of it. And whether you’re at home or abroad, count the exits and keep an eye on the front door wherever you go. If you have a response that’s a few seconds faster than everyone else, it might just give you the time to make a lifesaving decision.
Tim MacWelch has been a survival instructor for more than 20 years, training people from all walks of life, including members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, the State Department, DOD, and DOJ personnel. He’s a frequent public speaker for preparedness groups and events. He’s also the author of three New York Times-bestselling survival books, and the new Ultimate Bushcraft Survival Manual. When he’s not teaching survival or writing about it, MacWelch lives a self-reliant lifestyle with his family in Virginia. Check out his wide range of hands-on training courses that are open to the public at www.advancedsurvivaltraining.com.
Kris Southards spent 30 years as a criminal justice professional. He started working in juvenile detention. He spent the next 26 years working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, starting as a correctional officer and rising to management center administrator. During his tenure, he received training in hostage negotiation and was the lead management negotiator in a local union negotiation. He spent the last four years in the private sector as the director of a community reentry center.