The death of American photojournalist Luke Somers in a special forces rescue operation in Yemen on Saturday was a reminder that such high-risk missions are as likely to fail as to succeed.
U.S. defense officials were trying to determine what went wrong before dawn Saturday when about 40 special operators converged on a building in Yemen’s rugged Shabwa province on a mission that had been designed to surprise. Instead, the kidnappers became aware of the Americans before they could attack, gunfire broke out, and Somers and a South African hostage, teacher Pierre Korkie, were fatally wounded.
It was the third U.S.-led hostage raid since July that failed to rescue its target alive, underscoring the danger Americans who’ve been taken captive by al Qaida-inspired groups face. Because the U.S. government is unwilling to bargain for their freedom, a military rescue becomes the hostages’ only hope for survival.
A July 4 raid in northern Syria failed to locate American journalist James Foley, who was subsequently beheaded by the Islamic State in a video that was posted on the Internet Aug. 19, the first of three American hostages who’ve been killed by the Islamic State. Late last month, U.S. special forces rescued eight Yemenis from a cave in Yemen’s Hadramawt province, but Somers, the target of the raid, was not there.
A South African charity, Gift of the Givers, said it had been negotiating for Korkie’s freedom in return for a $3 million ransom, and there were reports that he was to have been released on Sunday. Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman told reporters in Johannesburg that a South African police official in Yemen to help arrange Korkie’s release had notified him of the teacher’s death.
“The South African police negotiator in Yemen said they had pictures of Korkie’s body,” Sooliman said, according to the South African Press Association. “But we want to see his body.”
The group had negotiated the release in January of Korkie’s wife, Yolande.
Yemen’s national security chief, Maj. Gen. Ali al Ahmadi, linked the timing of the raid, which President Barack Obama ordered on Friday, to a video released Thursday by al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaida’s Yemen affiliate. In the video Somers pleaded for help while a leader of AQAP threatened him with death if the group’s unspecified demands were not met.
“Al Qaida promised to conduct the execution today so there was an attempt to save them,” news reports quoted al Ahmadi as saying. “But unfortunately they shot the hostage before or during the attack.”
In a statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Somers and Korkie were “murdered by AQAP terrorists during the course of the operation.”
“On behalf of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces, I extend our condolences, thoughts, and prayers to their families and loved ones,” Hagel said.
No U.S. military casualties were reported. Yemeni officials said four members of the country’s counter terrorism unit were wounded in the raid.
Hagel said that “several of the AQAP terrorists” were killed, and reports from Yemen said that at least 10 people had died. Tribal officials in Shabwa province said that the dead included more than half a dozen civilians in addition to at least two AQAP fighters.
Al Jazeera quoted a Yemeni journalist as saying that the captors had attempted to escape with their hostages when American forces arrived. They shot the hostages when they found themselves surrounded, the news site reported.
Shabwa has been the site of frequent air strikes by U.S. drones.
How the U.S. government should deal with hostages has been the subject of controversy since the death of Foley and that of two other Americans, Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist from Miami who was beheaded in a video posted Sept. 2, and Peter Kassig, an aid worker from Indiana whose bloody head was displayed in an Islamic State video posted Nov. 16. The three men had been held during their captivity with citizens of European nations who were released after their governments agreed to ransom payments.
In a letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., last month, the Obama administration said that it was reviewing the way it handles the cases of American hostages, though White House officials emphasized that the longtime U.S. prohibition on paying ransom was not under review.
But others question the wisdom of a blanket prohibition on such negotiations.
“Just addressing the captors, the enticement of paying, even if you have no intention of paying, draws them in,” said a senior congressional aide whose office has dealt with the families of missing hostages. “It keeps them alive.”
There are currently several dozen Americans being held around the world, according to Hunter’s office.
It was unknown what U.S. officials knew about the negotiations for Korkie’s release and whether they had coordinated Saturday’s raid with South Africa.
A senior Defense Department official told McClatchy that the raid began at around 4 a.m. local time in the Nisab district of Yemen’s Shabwa province, a rugged area that has long been outside the control of Yemen’s central government.
A team of about 40 special forces landed in two Osprey vertical-takeoff aircraft a few miles from the village of Abadan, where officials were “pretty certain” Somers and Korkie were being held, the official said. The U.S. team then walked to the site, the official said, in an effort to maintain an element of surprise.
The planned time on the ground for the operation was 20 minutes, the official said.
But before the Americans were able to mount their attack, the kidnappers became aware of their presence, the official said; how is still under investigation. Gunfire broke out, and the captors shot Somers and Korkie. U.S. forces shot and killed the roughly seven captors and took Somers and Korkie, who were wounded but still alive, back to the Ospreys, the defense official said, and took off.
The aircraft landed on the U.S.S. Makin Island, which was stationed in the Gulf of Aden off Yemen’s coast and includes a hospital. Somers and Korkie were pronounced dead on the ship, the defense official said.
Special operations are always risk-filled, and even those that are hailed as wild successes, such as the May 2, 2011, raid that ended in the death of al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, often hang by a thread. The bin Laden raid, on a weakly defended compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that had been under observation for months, almost was aborted when one of the two helicopters carrying the raiders crash landed.
A hostage rescue operation is even more delicate, with a success rate, special operators say, of just 50 percent.
The odds against success are enormous. Intelligence about where the hostage is being held is likely to be incomplete or inaccurate. The hostages may be moved by the time the operation is organized and executed. The captors might kill the hostage during the rescue. The rescuers themselves could be killed or they could accidentally kill the hostages during the harried operation.
The last known successful hostage rescue was in 2012, when U.S. special operators swooped in on Somali insurgents holding an American and a Dane.
Somers, a graduate of Beloit College in Wisconsin, had been working as a freelance journalist since 2011 in Yemen and had contributed photographs to the BBC, the British news outlet reported. He was kidnapped in September 2013 outside a grocery store in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. His disappearance had been subject to a media blackout until Thursday’s video.
Korkie and his wife, Yolande, were kidnapped by militants in Taiz, Yemen’s second city, in May 2013. At the time of the kidnapping, Korkie was a teacher, and his wife did relief work in hospitals. She was released on Jan. 10 and returned to South Africa Jan. 13, according to the South Africa Press Association.