On October 7th, 2023, terrorists from the Islamist Resistance Movement Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah (HAMAS) attacked multiple towns southern Israel with rockets, and infiltrated via motorcycles, powered paragliders, vans, and any other means they could find. Hardest hit were the kibbutz Re'im and the Supernova Sukkot Gathering, which was a music festival billed as a celebration of "friends, love, and infinite freedom". By the end of the day, the HAMAS terrorists had savagely raped and murdered over 1,400 civilians, filming much of the horrors for propaganda. They also kidnapped over 240 people, and disappeared back into Gaza. HAMAS's goal was to carry out an attack so horrifying that Israel would have no choice but to respond with force. HAMAS could then hide in hospitals, schools, and mosques amongst Palestinian civilians, many of whom would be inevitably killed during the ensuing clashes. Palestinians could then parade the killed civilians before the cameras to claim a moral equivalency between their terrorist attack and the Israeli response. HAMAS intended to draw other regional powers into the conflagration which they hoped would end with the destruction of Israel.
Regional politics aside, this attack showed that even if we feel secure, terrorists could come out of the skies at any moment to murder and capture anyone who is not prepared. No, we should not live our lives cowering in fear, but we should think about and prepare for the worst so we can live in confidence. Being taken hostage by terrorists is among the worst things that can happen to anyone. You spend every moment not knowing if you will live or die, while having your ability to do anything violently stripped from you. Being held hostage is a traumatic experience, and overcoming in that situation will be extremely difficult. Below is a guide that can give you some tools to help you survive a hostage situation. The pointers below will give you some things to think about before you need them, though every situation will be different.
Surviving the Initial Capture
The moment of capture is the most dangerous and most critical moment in a hostage situation. This is the time when you are most likely to be killed, but also when you have the greatest opportunity to escape. The HAMAS attack in Israel was a chaotic moment for both the terrorists and the Israeli civilians who woke up to what they believed would be another peaceful Sabbath morning. Soon chaos erupted, and many attempted to flee and hide. Most of the Israeli civilians were unarmed, an no match for the terrorists armed with Ak-47s, rocket propelled grenades, and U.S.-made M-4s. Most of the Israeli civilians were unprepared for the horrors that would come. A few Israelis were prepared. They grabbed whatever weapons they had available, and fought back, killing some of the attackers. By being prepared, and being armed, they saved themselves and their families from the tragedy that many others endured.
Terrorist attacks like the one on October 7th often come as a surprise. You can never plan for your day to be interrupted by terrorists parachuting in from the sky, or hijacking a plane, or shooting up a shopping center. Because of this, appropriate awareness of your surroundings can give you a significant advantage. Even if you cannot avoid the situation, being aware of your surroundings could give you precious seconds to prepare yourself mentally, or plan your defense or escape. Maintaining control of your mindset will help you respond without panicking. Do whatever you must to avoid being taken to a different location, as your chances of survival drop drastically when you are moved. Keep in mind that this is likely the terrorists' first time trying to take hostages, and things likely are not going according to plan. They will also be amped up, and not thinking rationally. This makes the situation extremely volatile and dangerous, as it raises your risk of being killed. At the same time, this is when it is most critical to pause, think through your next steps, and take whatever advantages you can. By controlling your mindset and avoiding panicking, you could manage to escape or fight back. This is could be the difference between life or death.
Care for Your Body and Mind
Once taken into captivity, you will lose control of nearly every aspect of your life. Your captors will restrain you and will likely torture you. You will not get enough food or water. This will partially be because your terrorist captors see you as less than human, or because they want to use you for propaganda value. At this point in your captivity your primary concern should be to care for your own body and mind. This is not the time to convince your captors that their political, ideological, or religious views are incorrect. This is also not the time to go on a hunger strike in protest. They do not care. Take every opportunity you have to eat, drink, sleep, or go to the bathroom. Do not resign yourself to the idea that your captors control your life. Ask for food; address your physical needs. If they refuse, wait a while, and then ask again. You will need your body to be in the best condition possible.
Likewise, take care of your mind. You will face excruciating boredom, as hours will feel like days. You may be stuck in a small cell or box, with no evidence of the passage of time. Tell yourself stories. Write poetry in your mind. Count the number of blocks on the wall. Recall recipes to your favorite meals, and imagine preparing and eating them. You will need your mind sharp in the coming days and months ahead.
Resist, Resist, Resist
Witold Pilecki was a Polish resistance fighter who volunteered to go to Auschwitz to gather intelligence and organize a resistance within the camp. In spite of the horrors he faced during his three years in Auschwitz, Pilecki thrived by constantly resisting the prison guards. Pilecki organized many of the other prisoners in the camp into a resistance group, and placed them in various beneficial positions within the camp. He leveraged the expertise of other prisoners to build a radio transmitter that he then used to get information out of the camp to the Polish resistance and to the Allied forces. The resistance group even flicked disease-infected fleas at the guards, causing many of them to get sick days later. Pilecki hashed out multiple escape plans, passing many of them off to others, so they could escape. Pilecki ultimately formed a force that could rise up against their captors, once they received word from the resistance leadership. Ultimately, they did not get the command, and Pilecki took an opportunity to escape and rejoin the fighters outside the camp.
Pilecki's fascinating story demonstrates the importance of maintaining your will to live and to overcome any challenges. A hostage situation is a battle of wills. Your captors will constantly try to break down your will to continue, so you must look for daily wins, no matter how small. Find humor, even in the darkness. Talk to your fellow captives, if possible, and form a bond with them. The sense of community will lift all your spirits. Tell your captors your name, and remind them of it repeatedly. Tell them you have family waiting for you at home. This will force your captors to see you as human, rather than an objective of theirs. Take any opportunity to communicate with the outside world. Your captors may try to make a hostage video of you, or use you for propaganda. Use this opportunity to degrade their propaganda efforts, or to get messages out to your family.
In January 2002, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Pearl, was abducted by al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan. Pearl found every opportunity to resist their efforts. In hostage photos al Qaeda sent his family, Pearl sat facing the camera with his chained hands in front of him. His family noticed the position of his hands, and that he subtlely held his middle fingers up. This was imperceptible to his captors, but signaled to his family that he remained defiant. His captors then forced him to make a propaganda video decrying U.S. policy. During the video, Pearl purposely mispronounced words, and at the end stated "My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish, I am Jewish. Back in the town of Bnei Brak , there is a street named after my great grandfather, Chaim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town." His family knew that was something his captors could not possibly have known, and that was Pearl's way to communicate to them that they had not broken his spirit. Ultimately, Khalid Sheik Mohammed beheaded Pearl, but they did not break him.
Captivity will be tough. It will be disheartening. They key to making it through the ordeal will be to maintain a resilient mindset. Don't be trapped by false optimism "Surely I'll be recued in time for Christmas," as that will lead to disappointment. Instead, learn to thrive in your circumstances by celebrating your small victories wherever you can win them.
Always Plan Your Escape
From the very moment you are taken into captivity, you should start planning to escape. This is not to say that you should escape at the first chance you get. Trying to escape could get you killed, so you must do so carefully and at the right time. In April 2004, Iraqi insurgents attacked a U.S. convoy, taking defense contractor Thomas Hamill captive. For 24 days Hamill remained in custody, shackled to the wall at night, not knowing if he would live or die. He faced mock executions and demands for him to convert, or die. Instead of giving up, he maintained his faith, and waited for the ideal opportunity to escape. One day, he heard diesel engines outside. He pried open the door to his cell, and ran toward a national guard unit that had been on patrol. Hamill had known that while he could have escaped his cell sooner, he could not have survived the desert outside. By waiting until an American convoy was nearby, Hamill found his way back to freedom.
During World War One, English journalist Geoffrey Pyke was quickly arrested after arriving in Germany with a false passport. He was sent to Ruhleben prison inside the heart of Germany. Every day that he was detained, Pyke meticulously planned his escape, going over every minute detail in his mind, and solving every potential hurdle. He even calculated the timing of the escape so as to use the glare of the sunset to blind the guard on patrol while he hid in plain sight. Once he had his plan in place, Pyke and fellow Englishman, Edward Falk, made their daring escape. Once outside their prison, they made their way to Berlin, then on to the Dutch border and freedom. Pyke later went on to be a major voice against antisemitism in Germany, came up with the ideal of special operations forces, and even designed a giant aircraft carrier made of reinforced ice, Pykrete, a material that was stronger than concrete. Pyke's meticulous planning kept his mind sharp during captivity, and allowed him to overcome the many hurdles he needed to get over to regain his freedom.
Overcome, and Thrive Though the Challenge of Captivity
Being held hostage by terrorists is possibly the worst threat to your life and freedom imaginable. They could take your life at any moment. They can torture and hurt you in any number of horrific ways. They can deny you food, water, medical care, sunlight, and all of your basic necessities. They can scar you emotionally. Because of the horrors that this scenario can cause, you must determine to overcome these challenges, and never lose the will to win. You can still maintain control of your mind and your will, and still find ways to thrive. Look for ways to help your fellow detainees. Look for information you can collect about your captors that can help law enforcement or military responders once you get out. Find ways to make sure this never happens again.
Nadia Murad was a young Yazidi girl captured by ISIS in 2014. She was raped and sold as a slave, passing from one ISIS leader to another. When she finally escaped captivity, she made it her life mission to ensure this would never happen again. Murad traveled around the world highlighting the plight of the young Yazidis who remained in captivity. She brought awareness to the young girls kept as sex slaves, and the young boys trained to become suicide bombers. Her efforts made the world a better place. Her book "The Last Girl" sought to bring the world's attention to the ongoing barbarity in the so-called "Caliphate". Murad's efforts won her the Nobel Peace Prize, but more importantly, it spurred efforts to rescue many of those who remained in captivity.
Life is not merely about survival. It is about thriving no matter your circumstances. The Israeli hostages held by HAMAS face unfathomably brutal conditions, if they are still alive. Those of us not in captivity should prepare to face the threat of terrorism at any moment, and prepare our minds to thrive through whatever circumstances we may face. As Winston Churchill famously said, "Never, never, never give up."