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When Sums Go Bad: Mathematical Models and Hostage Situations

NCJ Number
Terrorism and Political Violence Volume: 13 Issue: 2 Dated: Summer 2001 Pages: 49-66
Andrew Silke
Date Published
18 pages
This article reviews the research on the mathematical principles of hostage taking and tests the guidelines of these principles against three recent high-profile hostage situations.
Nearly one quarter of all international terrorist incidents involve the taking of hostages, and in the 1990's, such incidents resulted in the deaths of over seventy people. Few other terrorist acts, with the possible exception of large bombings, attract as much media interest and attention. Distinct from bombings, hostage situations present governments with an opportunity to make a positive and lasting impact at home and abroad. Such events can also lead to a very public humiliation for the authorities involved and can even encourage future terrorist acts to be directed against the state. Despite the high profile of hostage incidents and the inherent potential either to reinforce or damage seriously the security of the state, the available knowledge on the dynamics of terrorist hostage situations has remained surprisingly basic. Because of the massive media attention terrorist hostage situations generate, being able to respond effectively to and resolve such situations is of the utmost importance. Predicting the outcome of hostage events is never easy. Yet the potential benefits are enormous if patterns and relationships between different behaviors and the eventual outcome could be reliably identified. A small body of research has used mathematical models to assess the importance of various behaviors, characteristics and actions. The guidelines that have emerged from this research were tested against three high-profile hostage situations. The three hostage situations reviewed in this article are the hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 (December 1995), the siege of the Japanese Embassy, Peru (December 1996 to April 1997), and the Hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 (December 1999). How did the models cope with the reality of these cases? The mathematical models seem to have failed in predicting the outcome of the three events. In theory, while this approach should produce more reliable predictions and be less prone to subjective opinions and personal biases, problems can arise because the approach averages across large numbers of cases and can miss salient features of individual cases. It is not that the variables identified by the economists are not important, but rather that other relevant variables have not been considered. The overall finding is that the mathematical models are currently too limited to be relied upon in field situations. Nevertheless, it is equally very clear that the potential exists to develop more robust models that could prove highly useful in the real world. 37 notes


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