Abduction and detainment by criminals or terrorists is a dangerous, terrifying ordeal, one for which it’s difficult to prepare by any normal standards. You won’t be able to access your survival kit if you’re being held at gunpoint, whether during a robbery or by political extremists. All you’ll have available are your wits, your powers of observation, and some foreknowledge. Fortunately, all that — plus a little luck — might be enough to help tilt the odds in your favor.


The initial moments of a kidnapping or hostage-taking are the most dangerous: you have no idea of the motives of the kidnappers, and they have no sense of what you or your fellow hostages-to-be are capable of. Panic responses, unpredictable actions, and wild outbursts draw attention to yourself, and can make you a target — literally.

“Right from the start,” says Brian John Heard in his book Kidnapped and Abduction: Minimizing the Threat and Lessons in Survival, “…be observant. Remember every single detail that you can; this will not only assist in your escape, should you so try, but also supply information to the police that will aid in apprehending and convicting the kidnappers.”


Stay aware of your situation and of your captors’ emotional state, and monitor their intentions.

Remember and use the three stages of situational awareness: Perception — observe everything that is happening; Comprehension — process and understand the risks and dangers, both immediate and future; and Projection — looking ahead to the possible outcomes of the situation, and looking for opportunities for defensive actions that may become available.

Make a note of how many attackers there are, how they are armed, and other details — the language they speak, their claimed or apparent motives and demands, and if possible, the details of where they are taking you. If you are blindfolded and put in a car, some experts recommend keeping track of the turns (right and left), and by counting the time between them, just to get a rough idea of where you might be taken.


If anyone has a watch, that’s the simplest way to keep track of the passage of hours and days. If not, try to track hours of daylight, or at least sense the change in temperature signifying day and night. Look for patterns in your captors’ behavior: What times they bring you food, who brings it, anything else they repeat. Observing scheduled activities can give you a potential edge in an escape attempt: a repeated activity at a known time means you can expect what is going to happen and can help you plan in advance to take intelligent action.

Famed racing driver Stirling Moss, highly successful in the sport’s very dangerous years of the 1950s and 1960s, said one of the things he feared the most during a race was to come suddenly on an oil slick. It’s like hitting a patch of ice; the car becomes a projectile incapable of braking, steering, or accelerating. His survival technique? Moss would deliberately throw his car into a slide before he got to the slick. The car was still out of control, but as a result of his own actions, which made it less frightening. In the same way, tracking time, schedules, and activity reduces the passive nature of your captivity.


“Hostages should perform mental exercises every day to keep their minds sharp and help regain and retain perspective,” says Richard P. Wright, author of Kidnap for Ransom: Resolving the Unthinkable. “Simple exercises such as multiplication tables, remembering quotations from great literary works, or reconstructing dialogues with loved ones can be of great help in maintaining mental acuity.”


How is the situation likely to end, that is, what are your captors’ reasons for taking you hostage? If it’s for ransom, you’re only worth money to them if you’re alive. The consensus from law enforcement and other agencies is to cooperate, as much as possible: don’t give them a reason to harm you, and wait for the ordeal to be over. Similarly, if you are a hostage during a criminal activity, your survival is their survival. If they kill you, there’s nothing to prevent a SWAT team from rushing in and killing them.

If you are a hostage of a political extremist group, things get more complicated. In some cases, such as the Iranian hostage situation of 1979-81, the 52 Americans seized by revolutionaries were more valuable alive than dead. Today, of course, the gruesome murder of political hostages is another method of terror.


Assess your situation for how likely it is your captors might kill you, no matter what you do. This is distinct from threats of death if you don’t comply with their orders. It’s important you use the third step in the situational awareness assessment methodology: projection. Once you have observed and understood the situation, project the outcomes based on what you know about your captors and their motives. If you believe, genuinely believe, that they intend to kill you no matter what their demands are, then you stand to lose nothing by making every attempt to escape.

The behavior of your captors toward you may give you some indication as to this possibility. If they stop feeding you, if their treatment of you becomes dehumanizing, or if they no longer conceal their identities around you, this may be an indication the situation is winding down. Be prepared to do anything necessary to escape, if you genuinely believe they intend the worst.


Whether to prepare for an escape or simply to pass through the situation with the least amount of stress and terror, keeping physically active is crucial. Make a point to do any exercises you can perform in the space available. Include cardiovascular (endurance) training and strength training in your routine, jumping jacks and pushups, isometrics (squeezing your hands together, pulling them apart), whatever you can do. Exercise helps in two ways: first, physical exertion helps combat depression, and by keeping yourself active you will be more alert to your situation. Second, of course, if you see an opening where you can make a run for it, being in shape could give you the edge that might save your life.


As far as possible, do nothing to attract your captor’s awareness. If you have fellow captives, blend in with them. Don’t do anything to make them select you for an example. In particular, do nothing to give the appearance of being a troublemaker. If the opportunity does come for you to escape, you’ll have a greater chance of success if they haven’t been keeping an extra-watchful eye on you.

If they interrogate you, don’t be belligerent or combative (no matter how cool it looks in the movies when the spy gives a witty comeback to the super-villain). Being argumentative can lead to longer incarceration or reprisals. Talk freely of inconsequential things, but be more cautious on issues such as their motives (political, criminal, or both). And beware the “good cop/bad cop” routine — criminals and terrorists use it too.


The most dangerous times of your captivity are when you are initially captured, but also when rescuers arrive.

According to Brian John Heard in his book Kidnapped and Abduction: Minimizing the Threat and Lessons in Survival: “Although it may be of little comfort when you are under the extreme duress of being held as a hostage, you must never forget that you are of value to your abductors only if you are alive. That they will want to keep it that way is beyond doubt. Experience has likewise shown that the longer you are held in captivity, no matter how onerous it may be, the better the chances that you will be released alive.”


Drop to the floor, stay under cover if available, and keep track as far as you can where the fire is coming from. In addition, your captors may, seeing a desperate situation, decide to use you as a shield or simply kill you and your fellow victims. You survived the hostage situation; be sure you also survive the rescue.

Furthermore, don’t be offended if your rescuers don’t immediately recognize you as a hostage. (Sure, they do in the movies, but in the movies, the rescuers have read the script.) Remember that they are just as bent on their own self-preservation as you are, only they have automatic weapons. If they insist on detaining, searching, and even handcuffing you, simply keep repeating (in their language, if you speak it) that you are one of the hostages and thank them for rescuing you. Eventually your identity will become known, and your nightmare will be at an end.

Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-81)

On November 4, 1979, a mob of between 300 and 500 student revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took 66 U.S. citizens and diplomats hostage. After releasing a number of women and African-American hostages, 52 people remained captives.

On February 5, 1980, guards wearing black ski masks woke the hostages in the middle of the night, blindfolded them and led them to another part of the embassy. There, they were forced to strip and kneel while the guards stood behind them, making a show of cocking their weapons and preparing to fire. After several terrifying moments, the guards laughed, unloaded their weapons and told the hostages to get dressed. Both before and after, the hostages were repeatedly threatened with trial and execution, and were forced to play “Russian roulette” by the guards. Four hostages attempted escape, and spent long periods in solitary confinement after being recaptured.

In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter proposed the ultra-secret operation “Eagle Claw” to rescue the hostages in the former embassy building. Questionable planning, unmanageable logistics, and a sudden dust storm in the middle of the night led to the scrubbing of the mission, after the storm caused one of the rescue helicopters to crash into one of the twin C-130 cargo planes assigned to the mission, killing eight people. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who had objected to the plan from the beginning, resigned in protest as the Iranian government publicized the mission’s failure.

In July 1980, the former Shah died, removing a key element of the Iranian demands. Combined with the Iraq-Iran war which began the following September, the Iranian government expressed a renewed interest in ending the hostage situation. Carter’s administration redoubled negotiations to release the hostages the following month; this last-ditch effort in the final weeks before the presidential election gave rise to the term “October surprise,” a phrase invented by Ronald Reagan’s campaign team.

November 4th, 1980 was Election Day in the U.S., as well as the one-year anniversary of the original kidnapping. Carter’s defeat to Reagan is credited in part to his inability to bring the hostages home. On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration day and after 444 days of captivity, the American hostages were released.

Norrmalmstorg Bank Robbery (1973)

Any time a hostage situation comes up in conversation, it seems someone mentions “Stockholm Syndrome,” when hostages begin to identify, and even sympathize, with their captors. It refers to an actual event, a 1973 bank robbery in the Norrmalmstorg square in Stockholm, Sweden. On August 23 of that year, Jan-Erik Olsson, a repeat offender on furlough from his most recent prison term, entered the Kreditbanken in Norrmalmstorg and attempted to rob the bank. Police were summoned immediately and a brief firefight ensued, in which one officer was injured and the other was tied to a chair, and Olsson took four bank employees hostage. He demanded three million Swedish kronor, along with guns, bulletproof vests, and “a fast car” in exchange for the hostages. He also asked that his friend Clark Olofsson, also a career criminal, be brought to him.

For the next six days, negotiations and rescue activity continued in parallel. Olsson called the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, saying he would kill the hostages; he put one in a chokehold and let the strangled cries over the phone speak to his intentions.

The next day, Palme received another call — this time from hostage Kristin Emmark, a bank employee who said she was displeased with Palme’s actions and asked him to let the robbers go.

Olsson threatened repeatedly to kill all the hostages if the police used gas, but on August 28 the police launched a gas attack and after half an hour, Olsson and Olofsson surrendered without further harm to the hostages.

One myth about the Norrmalmstog hostage situation is that one of the hostages (presumably Emmark) became engaged to one of the kidnappers; this appears to be a mistranslation of the Swedish word “engagera,” which means to take an interest in someone — not that there was a proposal of marriage.


Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the May 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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