When a terrorist organization takes hostages from a country, there are two "usual" ways that the country can use in order to release them: (1) negotiate a deal with the captors, or (2) try to rescue the hostages by a military action.

Anecdotally, I have heard stories of countries that used other ways, e.g. the USA / Russia having their citizens released by threatening to kill family-relatives of the captors; but I found no reliable source for such stories.

Question: are there any other ways besides (1) and (2) that have been successfully used to have hostages released?

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    I recall at the time my parents discussing the captors-relatives-as-hostages tactic wrt the USSR during the Beirut wars in the early 80s. Right around when the Marines got blown up and other Westerners got hostaged. Supposedly cleared things right up, by rounding up passerbys in the ethnic neighborhoods of the abductors - "see, you just have to have the right methods!". But only hearsay. Nov 14, 2023 at 5:20
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    You might want to ask if any alternative ways have been used in similar situations by democratic countries. Killing the relatives of murderers is not unusual in Arab tribal society (leading to endless tribal conflict).
    – Jacob3
    Nov 14, 2023 at 11:54
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I think that's a bit more than just hearsay. ISTR that being in Thomas Friedman's From Beirut To Jerusalem. IIRC Friedman claimed the Soviets didn't stop at just taking counter-hostages as they applied the methods implied in Jacob3's comment - brutally. Then again, Friedman's account of the 1982 Hama massacre in that work has been characterized as more than a bit over-the-top.
    – Just Me
    Nov 14, 2023 at 13:18
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    One could argue that the anecdote you give is just a rather extreme form of your option (1), the "deal" being that the captors families are not killed in exchange for release. Blackmail/threat to family is a negotiation tactic, however immoral we think it my be.
    – Flats
    Nov 14, 2023 at 15:51
  • Yes. You could consider pointing a gun at someone and telling him you will sit if he does not cooperate in getting the hostages a for of negotiation. With an extreme leverage, but negotiation nonetheless.
    – SJuan76
    Nov 14, 2023 at 17:36

2 Answers 2


OK, I'll cite that alleged September 1985 Beirut kidnap war incident in which the KGB supposedly secured 3 diplomats' release - after a fourth was executed - by killing a Hizbullah affiliate's relative and threatening more to come.

I will not vouch for its accuracy, but you can search for more info using the name of the executed diplomat, Arkady Katkov.


The KGB has adopted novel, brutal and apparently effective methods of dealing with terrorists who attack Soviet interests in the Middle East, an Israeli newspaper reported Monday.

The Jerusalem Post said the Soviet secret police last year secured the release of three kidnaped Soviet diplomats in Beirut by c...ing a relative of a radical Lebanese Shia Muslim leader, sending him the severed organs and then shooting the relative in the head.

With some more, equally lurid details claimed elsewhere.

It's left as an exercise to the reader whether they think such methods befit a civilized nation (and to the politicians of said nation whether they'd survive the ensuing political fallout and how it would affect their international standing).

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    I think many Russians will consider it will only strengthen international standing and that they should do more of these. Still not sold that it's legit. Getting approval from Kremlin elderly would be an issue.
    – alamar
    Nov 14, 2023 at 19:07
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    +1 but one has to wonder how real that story is. Very few page talk about that event in English, at least using the names of the diplomats. Well, original event did happen latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-09-30-mn-17861-story.html Nov 14, 2023 at 22:43
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    @Fizz Well, whatever its status in English, my parents most likely had to have heard in French, most likely on French TV/newspapers (i.e. Facebook News was sadly not there yet), so it had at least some legs at the time. Plus the book cited by JustMe as well. Might very well have been true. Nov 14, 2023 at 22:58
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    There's a follow-up LA Times story in 1986 latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-01-07-mn-13892-story.html "The Jerusalem Post said the Soviet secret police last year secured the release of three kidnaped Soviet diplomats in Beirut by castrating a relative of a radical Lebanese Shia Muslim leader, sending him the severed organs and then shooting the relative in the head." Nov 15, 2023 at 15:42
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    @Fizz Now that we are linking to the same LA Times article twice, we are twice as sure this story has legs. Nov 15, 2023 at 17:15

I'm not aware of cases when a relative was threatened by a state, but someone from a broader group is probably not uncommon. E.g. when ISIS held (or claimed to held--IIRC accounts are disputed whether he was still alive) a Jordanian pilot and demanded the release of an al-Qaeda suicide bomber held by Jordan, the latter threatened to execute the [already convicted] bomber if ISIS hurt the pilot... which they actually did in the aftermath of the publication by ISIS of a video purportedly showing the pilot being burned alive.

The executions at dawn came just hours after the Islamic State group released a video that purportedly showed captured Jordanian fighter pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh being burned alive in a cage.

Government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani said that two prisoners, al-Rishawi and Ziad al-Karbouli, were executed early Wednesday.

The IS group had offered to trade Kasaesbeh, who was taken hostage by IS group militants in Syria in December when his Jordanian F-16 crashed near Raqqa, for Rishawi, but Jordan had insisted it would first need proof that the pilot was still alive.

Shortly after details of the pilot’s death emerged on Tuesday, however, Jordan’s state broadcaster announced that Kasaesbeh was killed on January 3 – raising questions over whether any of the hostage negotiations had ever been sincere.

The captured Jordanian pilot is from a tribal area in the Karak region south of Amman, home to several East Bank tribes that form the backbone of the country’s security apparatus and provide vital support for the ruling Hashemite dynasty. [...]

Failed al Qaeda suicide bomber Rishawi shot into the international spotlight last month when the IS group had sought her release as part of a deal to free captive Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. A video that appeared to show Goto's dead body was put online four days ago.

Karbouli, the second executed prisoner, was an aide to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in a June 2006 US bombing in Iraq. Karbouli had a strategic position in the militant Islamist group as an aide to Zarqawi, who is believed to have been a mentor to IS group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

So in this case the threat failed basically [and mutual executions were carried out], but it was a rather complicated affair.

It's far more common for a country to imprison someone (and depending on the quality of their justice system, this can be a more or less trumped up charge) and then do an exchange.

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