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Raj Persaud: The covert war of psychological manipulation

The absolute law of hostage negotiation is you never rule out of court the demands

24 September 2004

Terrorism, atrocities, hostage-taking, none of it makes much sense unless you take into account the element of psychological manipulation, which is often played out more covertly than most realise. If you want to understand what is actually going on in the current volatile situation in Iraq, it is vital to read between the lines in the emotionally charged messages being sent by Ken Bigley and his desperate family.

Mr Bigley's original statement, a personal and emotional appeal to Mr Blair, clearly orchestrated and cleverly directed by the hostage-takers, was designed to ensnare the Prime Minister. In his heartfelt appeal, Mr Bigley emphasises his ordinariness and unimportance in the larger scheme of international politics. Giving his extremely commonplace address of Walton, Liverpool, highlights he is just a regular citizen like you and me - raising the empathy of the British population with his plight. The inescapable conclusion at levels, perhaps below conscious awareness, is if Mr Blair does nothing, it is because he is too aloof and remote from his electorate.

The statement is all the more psychologically powerful because it appears to be a direct response to Mr Bigley's family's initial statement, displaying anger and upset that Mr Blair was ignoring their plight, but instead continuing with everyday politics. For a remarkable moment it appeared that Iraqi insurgents and some ordinary people in Britain appear to be in a kind of rare dialogue with each other - mediated via press releases and videos sent through the international media.

But then it seems the Home Office or some other government agency "goes" to the Bigley family and their second appeal appears remarkably changed in tone and psychology. Clearly the spin doctors understood rapidly the grave danger of a distraught family becoming a tool of the Iraqi insurgency. In their second statement the psychology is completely different: instead, Ken Bigley's fate is now located firmly in the hands of the hostage-takers. Rather than remonstrating with Mr Blair, there is an appeal for mercy and an incredible attempt to almost praise the hostage-takers for their resolve: "You have proved to the world that you are committed and determined."

In fact, an enormous amount of what is known about the psychology of hostage negotiation has been used in the design of this message, probably by Home Office experts. The attempt to acknowledge that something has already been achieved is an exhortation to the gunmen that they don't need to go further and actually harm their victim - they have already achieved a lot.

The endeavour to pass a message to Ken Bigley through the hostage-takers - "They wish you to say to Ken that they love him dearly and are waiting for him to come home" - is a direct effort to promote interaction between the victim and the gunmen.

Psychiatrists and psychologists who specialise in this area know well that the more interaction there is between victim and gunmen, the more a relationship of some kind is going to develop and the less likely those who have to do the killing will find themselves able to execute the final act of this tragedy. The less you know about your victim the more you are able to dehumanise them. This is why terrorists try to avoid interacting with their hostages as much as possible.

However, the other absolute law of hostage negotiation is you never ever rule out of court irrevocably the demands of hostage-takers - you play for time and keep saying that you are trying your best to give them what they want. The longer the time period elapses of contact between victim and hostage-taker, the more a relationship of some kind is going to develop, and the less likely they are to be killed.

Indeed, in their own chaotic way the Iraqi authorities seemed to be going down that route by not ruling out the possibility of liberation for the two incarcerated women whose release was demanded by Mr Bigley's captors. But then the Americans firmly stepped in and firmly ruled out this possibility. This cack-handed approach may unfortunately, at the time of writing, have sealed Mr Bigley's fate.

Whether it has or not, the true target of this latest devastating weapon in the Iraq conflict will have been realised: to make the authorities caught off guard and so appear bumbling, not in control, and therefore vulnerable. The Bigley tragedy has illuminated to the world that it is indeed the Americans who are calling the shots in Iraq. The terrorists have got a message out to the world despite the authorities best efforts - so who do you think is ahead in this "war on terror"?

The poignancy of the Bigley tragedy is that is focuses all our attention on the plight of some individuals we get to know through the media. This makes it difficult for Iraq to disappear as a remote and confusing problem that isn't relevant to our everyday concerns - which is what Blair and Bush were surely hoping.

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London