A Conversation with Sir Terry Waite, Founder of Hostage International, Who Was Held Captive in Beirut from 1987-1991

Sir Terry Waite

Sir Terry Waite KCMG CBE is the Founder of Hostage International, an international charity working to support the families of hostages, and former hostages around the world. He was held hostage in Beirut from 1987-1991.

In 1987, Terry made a dangerous journey to Lebanon to negotiate for hostages there. This journey was made despite the threat to his own safety, and out of Terry’s commitment to advocate for the release of hostages as the only negotiator who had met the kidnappers face to face. He was captured on 20th January 1987 and spent almost five years in captivity, nearly four years of which were in solitary confinement. No information on his whereabouts or survival reaching the wider world for over four years. During his incarceration, he was blindfolded, beaten, and subjected to a mock execution. He lived much of the time chained to a wall in a room without natural light. In the final months of captivity, he suffered from a severe chest infection which almost cost him his life. He was finally released in November 1991.

Terry’s career began working with the Church of England Board of Education in the UK and as an adviser to the Bishop of Bristol he accepted a position as adviser to the first African Archbishop of Uganda. During his time in Uganda, Terry dealt directly with Idi Amin to champion the release of Ugandan and overseas prisoners who suffered as a result of the Amin coup. In 1980 Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed Terry Secretary for Anglican Communion Affairs to work with churches abroad. After a few months Terry played the key role in securing the release of several European and Iranian captives when they were held on spy charges in Tehran. Terry’s reputation as a special emissary was cemented when in 1984 he established contact with Colonel Muammar Gadaffi in Libya, where three Britons had been detained following the murder of a policewoman outside the Libyan Embassy in London, and was instrumental in aiding their release. After his own release, Terry was elected to a fellowship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he completed his first book Taken on Trust, that he had written in his memory during the years of captivity when he was without pencil or paper. Today he is deeply engaged in many humanitarian causes including the homeless, overseas development, prisoners.

In this interview, I speak to Sir Terry Waite, Founder of Hostage International. Terry was captured in Beirut in 1987, and held captive for almost five years (nearly four of which were in solitary confinement). No information on his whereabouts or survival reaching the wider world for over four years. During his incarceration, he was blindfolded, beaten, and subjected to a mock execution. He lived much of the time chained to a wall in a room without natural light. Since his release, Sir Terry has dedicated his life to working with hostages, and their families to help them deal with the terrifying ordeals they are facing.

Q: For families and loved ones, what are those first few days like after someone is taken hostage?

[Sir Terry Waite]: Well, of course, the initial days can be incredibly challenging. Take, for example, someone working overseas expected to stay in touch who suddenly stops communicating. There might be no word from them for two or three days. Perhaps they’ve lost their phone, or maybe their wallet with credit cards has been stolen. There’s a degree of uncertainty. But as time passes, concerns escalate.

Typically, the best source for confirming a hostage situation would be a specialist, such as someone from the Foreign Office who’s familiar with these cases. They have a dedicated department now for breaking such news sensitively and gently. Hearing from a relative might also be preferable. The worst scenario is learning about it through social media or receiving a blunt phone call from a journalist stating, “We believe your loved one has been captured.” That would be a profound shock.

In the first few days, there’s usually scant information, and those affected are desperate for any details. I’ve seen many instances where a spouse or partner insists on traveling to the incident location. I’ve had to advise against this strongly—it’s extremely risky. They want to understand what has happened and what actions can be taken.

Information might not always be forthcoming from official channels like the Foreign Office for various reasons, necessitating specialised assistance. Occasionally, families might be informed with the caveat that the details must remain confidential, shared only with immediate family members. This secrecy can be tremendously burdensome as people naturally seek reassurance.

This is where Hostage International plays a crucial role. We have experts trained to manage these sensitive situations, offering support and delivering news if necessary, and assisting families through the multitude of challenges that arise when a loved one is taken hostage.

Q: How do families of hostages cope with the uncertainty of the situation they face?

[Sir Terry Waite]: There are various forms of hostage-taking, each with distinct characteristics. Broadly speaking, one can categorise them into political and criminal hostage-takings. Political hostage-taking involves abducting someone to gain a political leverage—this is the first type. The second type is criminal hostage-taking, where the motive is ransom. Both types are illegal, as forcibly detaining someone is a criminal act, but the distinction helps clarify the underlying motives.

Another emerging type is arbitrary detention, where authorities unjustly detain individuals. I’m currently handling a case in a country known for its corrupt government, where someone was wrongfully detained. Navigating these situations is complex, requiring a deep understanding of the dynamics at play to provide effective support.

At Hostage International, we tailor our approach to each individual’s needs. We assign a liaison to support the hostage’s family for as long as needed without a time limit. In some instances, I’ve communicated with people daily for extended periods, while in others, interactions might occur weekly or twice a week. For example, I’m still in contact every other day with someone who was released from captivity abroad but continues to need support.

This personalised care underscores that no two cases are identical. Each must be treated as unique, with specific strategies developed to address its particular challenges.

Q: What challenges do individuals face when they return after being taken hostage?

[Sir Terry Waite]: The adjustment to life post-hostage varies significantly from person to person. Some adapt swiftly, while others may take years, and a few, unfortunately, never fully recover from the trauma—though they are the minority. This variation largely depends on the individual.

Upon their return, hostages face numerous challenges. For one, life moves on without them; people change, and it’s not just the hostage who suffers, but their entire family. In some cases, families endure greater agony, living in uncertainty about their loved one’s fate. For example, during my captivity, my wife was unaware of my survival for three and a half years, only learning of my condition much later—a not entirely uncommon scenario.

Once released, former hostages encounter a myriad of practical issues—closed bank accounts, lapsed insurance, and the need for specialised medical and dental care that isn’t readily available. They might also require physical therapy among other medical treatments.

At Hostage International, we have a network of professionals, often volunteering pro-bono, ready to assist with these needs. If pro-bono services are not available, we seek subsidies to ensure care is provided. Dealing with these issues requires extensive, focused support—something a busy government department may not be able to offer. This is where the specialised services of our organisation become crucial, as we provide the intensive, personalised care needed by hostages and their families.

Q: Are you seeing an increase in the need for hostage support?

[Sir Terry Waite]: Certainly, the scale of our work at Hostage International has grown significantly. Three years ago, we were managing 20 cases, but today, that number has escalated to 70. Since our inception, we’ve dealt with nearly 500 cases. Over the past three years alone, we’ve seen a substantial increase—from 20 to 70 cases—and unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue. Hostage-taking is an ancient practice and will persist for a long time.

In addition to our direct support efforts, one aspect I haven’t yet mentioned involves training. We provide bespoke training for government staff, including those from the British Foreign Office, and for partners in Australia, Canada, and other nations. This training is designed to equip them with the necessary skills to handle these delicate situations effectively.

This training initiative has developed significantly over recent years, ensuring proper care and attention are afforded to these cases. When I first entered this field, the support systems, particularly within the British Foreign Office, were inadequate in maintaining communication with hostages and their families. However, there has been considerable improvement, and we now have robust cooperation with them in both training and support.

Q: What is the role of individuals with lived experience in supporting the families of those held hostage?

[Sir Terry Waite]: In my experience, there is a profound difference when counselling involves someone who has personally endured captivity or whose family has dealt with hostage situations. At Hostage International, many of us, myself included, have been in such positions—we often use the term ‘victims’ though it’s not my preferred label. Those who have been hostages or family members of hostages bring invaluable insight. Time and again, I’ve observed that people find it extremely beneficial to speak with someone who can directly relate to their experience.

An empathetic counsellor without this background can indeed offer substantial support, but speaking with someone who truly understands what it means to be in that situation adds a unique layer of comfort and understanding.

Our chairman, Phil Bigley, is a prime example. His brother was tragically murdered in Iraq about 30 years ago. I supported Phil long before Hostage International was established, back when I was just starting in this field. Over the years, Phil has evolved within the organisation and now, as chairman, his profound insights and background are incredibly valuable to our work and to those we help.

Q: How is social media impacting the families of hostages?

[Sir Terry Waite]: Indeed, it is extremely difficult to control the influence of social media during a hostage situation. It’s a challenge on all fronts, and frankly, blocking it completely seems unfeasible. What we do instead is inform families through the Foreign Office when a UK citizen is taken hostage. We direct them to Hostage International for guidance.

We typically advise families to be very cautious about engaging with social media. Information found there can often be based on assumptions, leading to wildly inaccurate theories that only heighten anxiety for those following the situation. The key is to have someone knowledgeable and understanding by your side—someone who can interpret the situation and provide support throughout this trying experience. It really is as simple as having that supportive presence to help navigate the complexities and emotional challenges posed by social media during such crises.

Q: How do individuals make sense of what they’ve been through?

[Sir Terry Waite]: It’s challenging to provide a one-size-fits-all answer because each family and situation is unique. For instance, my experience as a hostage was atypical because I worked as a negotiator and had successfully negotiated the release of many before I was myself captured. I always recognised the risks involved, including the possibility of being killed or captured. Accepting these risks was a fundamental part of my job, and while I managed to avoid capture for a long time, eventually, I was taken and had to face the consequences of my choices.

Fortunately, I emerged from the experience without severe post-traumatic stress. However, despite almost expecting to be captured at some point and enduring five years in solitary confinement, it still took me at least a year to reintegrate into life. My time at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, was crucial for my recovery. There, I was able to transcribe the book I had composed in my mind during captivity, which helped me process the ordeal and was also beneficial for my family.

Thus, every family must find their own path to cope with hostage situations. It’s crucial that they receive the appropriate support tailored to their specific needs.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Sir Terry Waite]: I’ve never really considered it deeply, but looking back, there are indeed three organisations that I played a pivotal role in founding. The first is Hostage International, which I started alone before officially establishing it as an organisation. Then there’s Emmaus, which aids the homeless. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, but I’m still their president. It began modestly with just a Portacabin, and now it encompasses 30 communities serving around 3,000 homeless people. The third is Y Care, which supports young people overseas. I founded it about 35 to 40 years ago.

So, I guess those are three institutions through which I’ve contributed, albeit modestly, towards making the world a better place. That’s what I hope to continue doing. At 85 years old, I plan to keep working until about 95, I suppose.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.