Hostage-taking has a long history, and as the events of the past few months have shown, it continues to be a major problem.
The practice of holding hostages was considered acceptable for a considerable period of time between states. In ancient and medieval times, it was used as a means to secure compliance from another state in an agreement or treaty. This could also include the children of important leaders, a practice used frequently during the Roman Empire, so as to secure the loyalty of the provinces.
However, by the 18th century, using hostages in political dealings between states became increasingly rare. In 1949, the Geneva Conventions formally made the taking of hostages a war crime under international law. Nowadays, hostages are generally only taken by criminals, unstable individuals or terrorist groups, who seek to send a political message.
The considerable attention that can be garnered by seizing hostages and the possibility of obtaining a ransom on their release means that hostage crises remain a regular occurrence. Groups like Islamic State have adopted the practice as a policy to raise funds for their military operations. Over the past decade, several groups resisting military action by the western powers in the Middle East have also resorted to taking hostages. The following list contains 10 of the most infamous hostage crises that have taken place.
10 October Crisis
The Canadian government invoked the War Measures Act for the first time in peacetime, in October of 1970, in response to the taking of two hostages by the radical Quebec separatist group, FLQ. James Cross, a British trade official, and Pierre Laport, Quebec’s labor minister, were captured on October 5th and October 10th, respectively. The FLQ aimed to negotiate a release of a number of prisoners who had been convicted of carrying out terrorist attacks on behalf of the organisation over the proceeding eight years. The following week, police discovered the body of Laporte in the back of a car in an airport carpark. Cross was released in early December, as part of a deal which saw the kidnappers exiled from Canada.
9 Munich Massacre
During the Munich Olympics in September 1972, a group of Palestinian militants took eleven members of the Israeli olympic team hostage. They struck in the early morning, catching the athletes and coaches as they slept. Two were killed at their apartment, as they tried to resist the attackers. After negotiations with the group, which was trying to secure the release of Palestinian and German prisoners, it was agreed to fly to a nearby airfield where the German authorities secretly planned an attack to rescue the nine remaining hostages. This attack failed, and in the gun battle that ensued at the airfield, the leader of the group massacred the remaining Israelis in the helicopter. In total, 17 people were killed.
8 US Embassy In Tehran
In one of the longest-running hostage crises, 52 American service personnel and civilians were held in the US embassy in Tehran for over a year, beginning on November 4th, 1979. The seizing of the embassy took place in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, which had swept the Shah from power earlier that year. The US sought to rescue the hostages, but a failed mission in April 1980, resulted in the destruction of two aircrafts, the deaths of eight armed forces personnel, and one Iranian civilian. The ending of the hostage crisis was ultimately brought about by the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, which encouraged Tehran to enter talks with Washington. Using Algeria as a mediator, a deal was struck which was finally signed in January 1981, leading to the release of the hostages in to US custody. The incident was a major factor in the US decision to break off bilateral relations with Iran after 1979.
7 Lebanon Crisis
The hostage taking crisis in Lebanon lasted around ten years, during which time individuals from western countries were repeatedly taken into captivity. None of the 96 victims were held for the entire period of the crisis, but were instead usually released in the months after being seized. Those responsible for the hostage were alleged to have links to the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah, which was fighting in the country’s civil war at the time and had close ties to Iran. Eight of the hostages died while in custody, mainly due to a lack of healthcare. The series of abductions was brought to a halt by the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Syria and Iran, both countries which relied on the Soviet Union for aid, were in desperate need of foreign investment by the beginning of the 1990s, leading them to pressure Hezbollah to stop the kidnappings.
Four British men were taken hostage by the Libyan government of Col Gaddafi, on April 17th, 1984. Libya stated that the hostages were imprisoned in exchange for the detention of four Libyan nationals being held in the UK for a series of explosions that had taken place in Manchester and London. Tensions were already high between the two countries in the aftermath of the death of a police officer, Yvonne Fletcher, who was shot by gunfire from the Libyan embassy in London. Some of the hostages were charged for sharing state secrets during their captivity, but a decision was taken in early 1985, to release them back to Britain. However, the vote taken by the Basic and General People’s Congresses of Libya placed certain conditions on their release. These included asking the British government to take steps to release the Libyan prisoners, as well as a halting of anti-Libyan propaganda in the UK.
5 Moscow Theatre
Chechen militants took 850 people hostage at a Moscow theater, on October 23rd, 2002. Wearing explosives and positioning larger explosive devices in the center of the auditorium, they demanded an end to the second Chechen War, in exchange for a release of the hostages. After laying siege to the building for two and a half days, during which time two female hostages were executed, Russian special forces decided to pump poison gas into the theater to overpower the militants. The result was the death of over 130 hostages because of adverse affects from the gas. Many hundreds more were injured. The militants were all killed by the special forces who later raided the building.
4 Beslan School
Over 1100 hostages were taken in the Beslan crisis, which began on September 1st, 2004. A group of militant Islamists targeted the school in the republic of North Osetia, in an effort to compel the Russian government to withdraw its forces from Chechnya. The Kremlin refused any negotiations with the terrorists and on the third day of the siege, security forces stormed the building. At least 385 people were killed, including 186 children, and over 700 injured. The government of President Vladimir Putin was heavily criticized in the days that followed, for downplaying the extent of the crisis by claiming that fewer hostages had been taken, that the terrorists had made no demands, and that the number of victims had been lower.
3 Gilad Shalit
After five years in captivity, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released by Hamas in a prisoner exchange on October 18th, 2011. Shalit was taken prisoner during a Hamas raid on the Gaza border, in June 2006. His seizure marked an escalation of the conflict between Israel, the Palestinians and Hezbollah in Lebanon, that ultimately led to Israeli’s war with Lebanon during the summer of 2006. A large campaign was launched for Shalit’s release, and a petition gathered thousands of signatures. Eventually, the deal struck involved Tel Aviv setting 1027 Palestinian prisoners free to secure his freedom.
2 Bowe Bergdahl
On June 30th, 2009, Bergdahl left the unit of the US army he was serving in, as part of the Afghanistan war and was captured by the Taliban shortly afterwards. Although he reportedly managed to escape once in August 2011, he was held captive until a prisoner exchange at the end of May last year, set him free. Bergdahl had written several emails to his family in the days before he left his unit in 2009, indicating that he was disillusioned with the brutality of the war and that he no longer wished to be a part of it.
Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant who proclaimed himself a cleric, took 17 people hostage at a cafe in Sydney’s central business district, on December 15th, 2014. Although media coverage initially presented the action as being supported by Islamic State, it quickly became clear that Monis was a deeply troubled individual who acted alone. He had been under police surveillance for years for various offences, and was on bail at the time of the incident. He held the hostages for a total of 16 hours, before the police stormed the cafe in the early hours of December 16th. In the process, two of the hostages were killed. The Australian government activated its terrorist response, shutting down public buildings across a wide area.