I had a conversation with a veteran SWAT operator not too long ago about how we would respond to Beslan-styled attack at a local community college. He posed a question “would I favor negotiations in such an attack?”
I said “Of course.” Incredulously he asked, “You would?” with a slight air of condescension. He went on, “They (Chechen terrorists) used the time negotiating (he used air quotes here) to fortify their position and booby-trap the school.” He did not say it directly but his underlying meaning was he would opt-in favor an immediate assault over strategic negotiations. In his mind, these incidents are non-negotiable therefore, negotiators are not necessary.
I have had similar conversations with operators where we debated the necessity of negotiators during an active-shooter or multi-site attack event.
Obviously there remains some confusion about our value in these types of events. In either incident, a negotiated resolution, on its face, appears unlikely. However, that does not mean we do not have a role. In Beslan, consider the following. The school was a critical soft target with highly vulnerable hostages. The actors were highly trained and heavily armed. They demonstrated a willingness to talk, making demands along the way. They released hostages, demonstrated violence, and indicated that they did not expect to live. A terrorist hostage-taking is one of two things; a disrupted attack or a deliberate bargaining attack. Beslan was the latter with extremely high stakes for non-compliance. The odds were stacked against the responders. We know through trial and error that the two most dangerous times for a hostage is during the initial taking and when we try to go in to save them. At least initially, what else are we going to do except negotiate? Active Listening Skills and the demonstration of empathy still have their place in the management of such incidents. What starts out as individuals hiding behind a cause or ideology may morph into an encounter with human beings operating at an intense emotional level in response to a high-pressure event.
In addition, the strategies and tactics we would employ are identical to those that would be used during a “run-of-the-mill” hostage/barricade incident, without regard to political, religious, or ideological background. We would still assess motives, demands, and behaviors. The factors and issues may be different in a terrorist hostage-taking but the process of assessment and recommendation is the same.
What can we offer during an active-shooter incident? While the violence is ongoing there is little we can or should, but what happens if the event goes static? Case in point, the multi-site attack in Mumbai. Several actors in this event showed either a lack of resolve or a willingness to negotiate (with the Israeli consulate). Would trained negotiators not have been useful in this event?
The answer is yes however, as we in the United States are training up our tactical operators on how to deploy versus a multi-site attack or active-shooter event, how many are including a negotiations component? If I were a betting man, I would say few. We may not negotiate a resolution but as a tool in the overall management of the incident, we are invaluable. Something to think about.