Debriefing a siege: What the Ala. bunker standoff can teach SWAT about successful hostage rescue

Successful planning, rehearsal and execution can only be achieved through well-trained and capable SWAT operators


Planning, rehearsal and execution are crucial to a successful hostage rescue. The Alabama bunker crisis in 2013 is a prime example of what is required to bring about a favorable outcome in such a crisis.

Jimmy Lee Dykes — a Vietnam veteran with a long rap sheet including arrests for brandishing a gun, selling marijuana and clubbing a neighbor’s dog to death — would prove to be the ultimate opponent for law enforcement in Alabama. Officers found themselves faced with the kidnapping of a 5-year-old boy from a man willing to die for his cause and a hostage rescue, the most deadly tactical challenge a SWAT team can face.

Dykes boarded a school bus loaded with children on January 29, 2013, and ordered the bus driver, Charles Poland, to hand over the bus and leave two boys behind. Poland refused and blocked Dykes from walking down the aisle of the bus, preventing him from taking any children.

Meanwhile, a 15-year old boy called 911 and relayed events to the operator as they were unfolding. As law enforcement responded, Dykes shot Poland five times, killing him. Dykes then grabbed a 5-year-old boy named Ethan Gilman and fled the scene. Dykes took the boy to his property, where he had built a 6-foot by 8-foot underground bunker. The remaining children — in fear for their lives — had to climb over Poland’s dead body to exit the bus.

Tactical Considerations
Never underestimate the ability of your opponent. Tactical planning on the part of your adversary is a critical component when planning your team’s response to such a hostage situation.

There were two early indicators that Dykes would likely be a formidable adversary. The fact that he entered a school bus, specifically demanded two children and then murdered the one person who could stop him in his tracks in front of a school bus full of children is an obvious indicator. The second indicator is that Dykes fled to an underground bunker with the kidnapped child. At this point, tactical commanders should be tracking for the worst case scenario — a hostage rescue.

The bunker Dykes built was equipped with electricity, a television, bunk beds, food, water and other living essentials. A PVC pipe extended up through the earth to allow for communications; however, it was also rigged with an explosive to deter cops from using the pipe to their advantage. The tactical planners had their work cut out for them.

Hostage Negotiations
Dykes was described by an FBI behavioral scientist at the scene as intelligent and angry but controlled. The FBI established communication with Dykes and quickly learned that he was deeply angry with the government and law enforcement. Furthermore, Dykes wanted to be a martyr and anticipated his death sparking anti-government protests and backlash.

It was revealed that Dykes wanted to allow a female reporter into the bunker so that he could tell his story and commit suicide in her presence. During the six-day siege, it was learned that Dykes had at least two IEDs in place and was teaching his young hostage to push a button that would initiate the IEDs in the event something were to happen to him.

Tactical Planning
The negotiations lasted six days with no positive gains, but valuable intelligence on the bunker and Dykes was obtained that would be useful for the entry team. Day 6 brought the inevitable to the forefront. Dykes was handling the explosives and weapons much more frequently, and his demeanor was more unpredictable than ever. FBI Director Robert Muller gave the order to initiate a hostage rescue, and the siege was about to end.

Most tactical situations in law enforcement rarely last six full days. The FBI has a track record of protracted standoffs. This can be an advantage to the entry team, as time provides the ability to rehearse. A mock bunker was built, and plenty of intelligence indicated that the entry team had only one entry point — a staircase leading down to the bunker — which was an obvious fatal funnel. Furthermore, it was known that at least two IEDs were in play, and, of course, the most important factor — Ethan Gilman was in an area the size of a small kitchen.

The entry team would have to successfully breach the stronghold without initiating the IEDs, traverse the stairway funnel, neutralize Dykes and save Gilman. This is when courage becomes an important component of the tactical plan. Any tactical commander knows by now that this hostage rescue will end quickly.

The hostage rescue will need to be swift, with an overwhelming amount of dominating force injected into the space of a van. The entry team must not hesitate in the face of explosions, gunshots and even worse, the possibility of a child getting wounded. The best tactical plan is only as good as the operator conducting the operation. Choosing your entry team is critical when only a limited number of operators will make the entry. In this case, it was a four-man entry team.

Execution Phase
The breach was initiated with a flash-bang. Dykes responded by initiating an IED near the entry point. The entry team descended into the stairway funnel as smoke billowed out of the small door. Dykes engaged the team immediately with gunfire and attempted to initiate the second IED, but the entry team swiftly neutralized Dykes with a return of gunfire, saving everyone in the bunker (including the boy).

The well-rehearsed entry team used speed, surprise, distraction and overwhelming force to successfully conclude this hostage crisis. These are the main objectives when executing a hostage rescue and innocent lives are on the line. While training SWAT cops and tactical commanders in hostage rescue tactics, I repeat until they are sick of hearing me that speed, surprise, distraction and an overwhelming amount of dominating force must be implemented in all hostage rescue operations. Anything less greatly increases your chances for failure.

Three Pillars of Hostage Rescue
Planning, rehearsal and execution are the three main components of hostage rescue. They can only be achieved through well-trained and capable SWAT operators that can execute in the deadliest environments. Tactical capability is also just as important. SWAT teams must be proficient in sniper initiated assaults, explosive breaching, bus assaults, tubular assaults, close quarter battle and tactical planning, to name a few.

The FBI team demonstrated their tactical ability during the Alabama bunker crisis. If your team gets that call, are you capable? 

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