Dealing with Hostage-Taking Situations: Lesson-Learned from the United States

By: Chery Sidharta, Dewi R. Kartonegoro, Edy Wardoyo, Sulaiman Syarif, Yuni Suryati.

Hostage-taking Situation

The U.S. Government has long experience in dealing with hostage-taking situations. According to the latest data from the White House, around 30 Americans are currently held hostage all over the world. The U.S. experience in dealing with hostage situation is important for Indonesia, as Indonesian citizens have been increasingly become target of hostage-taking situations.

U.S. Basic Positions

Hostage-taking is defined under the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, adopted December 17, 1979, as the seizing or detaining and threatening to kill, injure, or continue to detain a person in order to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the seized or detained person.

Hostage-takers often deliberately target private citizens as well as government officials to garner media attention and attempt to extract political and financial concessions. The mechanisms for recovering hostages have become more complex as well, with a range of foreign governments, intelligence services, private businesses, local actors, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing varying levels of connections to, information about, and leverage over hostage-takers.

The basic regulation for the U.S. Government in dealing with hostage situation is the Presidential Policy Directive No. 30 on U.S. Nationals Taken Hostage Abroad and Personnel Recovery Efforts.

The US strongly urges companies and private citizens not to pay terrorist ransom demands. It is believed that good security practices, relatively modest security expenditures, and continual close cooperation with embassy and local authorities can lower the risk to Americans living in high-threat environments.

However, when the goal of a US private organization or company is to gain the release of hostages by paying ransom or pressuring the host government for political concessions, US Foreign Service posts will limit their participation to basic administrative services, such as facilitating contacts with host government officials. The host government and the US private organization or citizen must understand that if they wish to follow a hostage resolution path different from that of US Government policy, they do so without its approval or cooperation. The US Government cannot participate in developing and implementing a ransom strategy.

Policy Options

Based upon past experiences, the US Government concluded that paying ransom or making other concessions to terrorists in exchange for the release of hostages, increases the risks of others taken hostage. The US Government policy is, therefore, to reject any demands for ransom, prisoner exchanges, and deals with terrorists in exchange for hostage release. At the same time, the US Government will make every effort, including contact with representatives of the captors, to obtain the release of the hostages without paying ransom, exchanging prisoners, etc. In short, no concession does not mean no negotiation.

The U.S. also focuses on capacity building for their diplomats and citizens working abroad to handle hostage-taking situation. It also forms working groups to regularly assess security threats around the globe, as well as other aspects of hostage situation, including dealing with hostage families in the U.S.

Indonesian citizens abroad are becoming prone to hostage situations. Recent incidents in Somalia, Nigeria and the Sulu Sea are some examples. The motive behind these hostage-taking activities are mostly economy.

In these circumstances, the Government has been dealing with the situation in ad-hoc manner. The Government also faces difficult situation of no concession to the kidnappers on one hand and public demand from the families and the public for speedy release of the hostages. So far, Indonesia has achieved a measure of success in dealing with hostage-taking situation against its nationals in this manner. However, in the long run, routine approach to hostage taking is not sustainable and hinder the adoption of a comprehensive view towards the issue.

Policy recommendations

The Indonesian Government has taken necessary measures to deal with hostage-taking situation by involving relevant authorities. The government’s policy thus far is to put dialogue and diplomacy with host countries as priority to solve hostage situations. In this regard, the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is crucial. However, learning from the experience of the U.S., Indonesia could strengthen its capacity in dealing with hostage situations, such as through:


  • Formulation of a national regulation in dealing with hostage-taking situation, similar to the U.S. Presidential Policy Directive No., 30, to ensure regular close coordination among the ministries and agencies, and coherent national positions in hostage negotiations.
  • Trainings and capacity building for Indonesian citizens working abroad, including its diplomats in dealing with hostage-taking situations, including personnel recovery efforts.
  • Form a inter-ministerial task force/working group to assess foreign countries’ security threat levels.


  • Inclusion of cooperation to deal with Indonesian nationals taken hostage in a host country, in defense, anti-terrorism and police cooperation agreements.
  • Capacity building for Indonesian officials dealing with anti-terrorism and hostage situation.


  • Continue the implementation of coordinated patrol arrangements.
  • Development of trilateral or regional mechanism to deal with the issue of hostage-taking prevention and return of hostage.

Indonesian nationals abroad are increasingly targeted as hostage. The solution of the problem is complex involving various government ministries and agencies domestically on one hand, and various foreign governments and entities abroad. Taking this into consideration, there is an urgent need for Indonesia to approach hostage-taking situations in a comprehensive and holistic manner. It has to be acknowledged that each hostage situation is different and there is no universal model in dealing with the issue. Nevertheless, the experience of the U.S. can be one model for Indonesia in developing its own policy on the issue.

Jakarta, 10 October 2016

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