The high stakes work of a hostage negotiator

From the peaceful enclave of Oundle, hostage negotiation specialist Leslie Edwards’ work takes him on missions to negotiate ransoms and the safe return of hostages with some of the most dangerous criminals in the world.

A new book by Colin Freeman, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, draws upon Mr Edwards’ experiences as an “unflappable negotiator” during the peak of the Somali piracy crisis from 2008-12 when 2,000 sailors were taken hostage over the years.

It is a gripping story, and true in every detail. I caught up with him in Oundle to hear first-hand about his high-stakes work.

Hostage negotiator work is not for the faint-hearted and inexperienced, and for that reason, recruits tend to be over 40 and often former British Army officers with experience in conflict areas.

Mr Edwards was working in Angola on a contract with the United Nations when the company hired him to work on a kidnap response team, mostly in South America. This led him into the work of negotiating for hostages’ lives.

He now runs his own company called Compass Risk Management that provides consulting services regarding kidnapping and piracy.

The primary aim of a negotiation is to ensure the safety of the kidnapped victims. To get there requires research where conclusions might be based on deductions, rather than facts. Within the first few days, he tries to identify the size and professionalism of the operation he is dealing with: for example, their abduction methodology, presentation on the phone and how demands are asked for.

Then he establishes the mission’s objectives. “You’ve got to know where you are going to end up. It may not be that exact spot, but you should have an objective before you start the negotiation,” he said.

Most importantly, he has to establish the condition of the hostages, and get proof they are alive. Dated photographs or videos are required, or answers to proof-of-life questions such as the name of a pet or other answers which only the hostage would know. “Otherwise, you can end up paying for dead hostages or paying the wrong group.”

Research also involves looking at previous cases in the same area and identifying the “going rate” for ransom, which can be based on the hostage’s health, age and nationality. He never pays the full ransom, but usually settles between five to twenty-five percent of the original demand after what looks like a traditional bartering process. Occasionally, he has had to switch from a terrorist situation to a financial situation, where instead of a life being lost, it is money.

“You have to have a good tactical ear for what’s going on, but every case whether it’ll be short or long, involves an intellectual appreciation of who you are dealing with, what their track record is, what their expectations are and what your options are. And that intellectual exercise still has to be done even in short, rapid cases.”

His experiences of communication with kidnappers covers the full range: they have been straightforward, difficult, and sometimes almost impossible. The worst cases can stretch for years. “The best sort of case scenario is when you’re dealing with professional kidnappers who understand how the game works and they are doing it as a business. Then you can usually have a straight one-to-one conversation and can get a deal done after a reasonable time, and for a reasonable amount money. The most difficult people to deal with are amateurs because they don’t know how the system works and they’re likely to turn to panic-induced violence,” he said.

Occasionally the police track the kidnappers afterwards, but Mr Edwards’ job does not involve caring about the kidnappers and what happens to them after the hostages are released. He is primarily aiming for “a win-win situation” where “hostages are released safe and well in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable amount of money in an agreement that would be honored and without high-risk complications”.

Sometimes those objectives fail, and he has had to be realistic about what is possible when dealing with the mix of business and emotion of all those involved.

He recalled a failed case where two foreigners working for a telecoms company had been kidnapped in Iraq. “I flew from Sweden to the communications company in Egypt. When I got there, no one would make a decision. It was five days before I could see any decision makers and even then, they wouldn’t decide. If clients don’t follow advice, things go wrong. I don’t know what happened to the hostages. We had contact for a while and then we never heard from them again.”

Another case in Iraq had a happier end after appealing to the captors’ humanity. “Two hostages from Turkey had been kidnapped in Iraq. Before we were involved, one of them had his head cut off, and that was filmed and posted on the internet. The demand was that they would cut the head off the other guy if all foreign workers did not leave Iraq.

“I flew to Turkey and spoke to the guy’s mother,” he recounted. “We posted an appeal from her. She was a widow with four other children to support, it was Ramadan. She asked that the kidnappers have mercy on her son who knew nothing about politics.” The captors dropped their demand for foreign workers to leave and settled for $60,000. “That’s one of my best cases ever.”

He emphasises that the process is not about a victory and defeat but calculated mutual understanding. “You’re not trying to necessarily defeat the other person, you’re trying to create a win-win. That is often true in all negotiations in life.”

Through his work Mr Edwards has had to face the extreme deprivation of people’s morality, from barbaric murders to inhumane captive conditions leading to malnutrition. It has helped him keep the last year’s hardships during the pandemic in perspective. “There is always someone worse off than you. People don’t realize how lucky they are.”

Gabriel Sun
May 2021