Alabama hostage rescue: why some secrets will remain in the bunker

The rescue Monday of a 5-year-old Alabama boy from an underground bunker involved lots of secrecy on the part of law enforcement. Not all questions are likely to be answered as to how federal authorities extracted him.

Phil Sears/Reuters
A sign and wreathes honoring murdered bus driver Charles Poland, Jr. hang on a fence surrounding Midland City Elementary School near Midland City, Alabama, Tuesday.

Before he died in a hostage rescue attempt in a bunker in Alabama, Jimmy Lee Dykes kept a TV on as his captive, a 5-year-old named Ethan, played with a red Hot Wheels car nearby.

As negotiations began to break down over the course of the six-day ordeal, law enforcement authorities pushed reporters away from the scene and said precious little publicly, except to thank Mr. Dykes over the airwaves for taking care of "our child" ­– a direct message to Dykes, and, with a boy's life hanging in the balance, part of a covert, tactical mission bent on keeping Dykes, and thus the rest of America, in the dark.

Hostage negotiations, especially those involving children, are always tricky, and trained government negotiators already have a secret bag of tricks that are not shared. In this case, news reporters aided the effort, as well, with many agreeing not to publicize movements of equipment and people in the Midland City, Ala., area so as not to spook Dykes.

But while more will surely be told about the ordeal in Alabama, which ended Monday with a late afternoon raid that saved Ethan but ended in the death of Dykes, it's also clear that parts of the operation will remain shrouded in secrecy, given that it involved America's most expert paramilitary counter-terrorism units collaborating with US special operations forces, under the direct authority of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

"This all rings of a unique covert operation,” says Randall Rogan, a crisis communications expert at Wake Forest University who has been following the story closely, adding the multiagency involvement is “atypical, quite honestly, for … what, after all, is not a significant terrorist event."

"There may be some general overview and general description of what happened, but there won't be full, complete disclosure,” he says. “And that's understandable. There are people out there who pay attention and who would make note of it, who are cognizant of what transpired and how it transpired, and who may take steps to prevent that sort of tactic from being utilized in the future."

The ordeal began last Tuesday when Dykes, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who had once beaten a dog to death with a metal pipe and threatened children who walked onto his property with death, stormed onto a school bus in Midland City and demanded two children. The bus driver, Charles Poland, Jr., stood in his way as the children began escaping out the back door. Dykes, police say, then killed Mr. Poland and grabbed Ethan, with whom he then escaped to a home-dug 8-by-6-foot bunker in a rural area nearby.

The FBI has not yet said how Dykes died, or how Ethan escaped injury in an extraction that began, the FBI says, when Dykes showed symptoms of being irrational and when a covert FBI camera inserted into the bunker showed him pacing with a gun. Neighbors reported hearing several loud bangs and bursts of gunfire.

The agency has not said how it got an inside glimpse of the closet-sized bunker, but Rogan says it's likely that a small device was attached to one of the items handed to Dykes through the pipe, including toys and medicines for the boy.

"We have a big crime scene behind us to process," said Special Agent Steve Richardson of the FBI's Mobile, Ala., office at a press conference Monday. "I can't talk about sources, techniques or methods that we used. But I can tell you the success story is (the boy) is safe."

What is known is that the agency used military bomb-sniffing equipment and Army bulldozers to dig a similar bunker nearby, where an FBI counterterrorism team practiced a variety of extraction methods, aided, a source told CNN, by military advisers.

The military connection has added to the ordeal's mystique, especially given another recent hostage resolution shrouded in secrecy: the extraction in early December of kidnapped American doctor Dilip Joseph from the Taliban in Afghanistan, an operation that most Americans had little knowledge of, even though one Special Forces soldier was injured, and later died.

In that case, the media blackout was very much on purpose, “It’s very spy-versus-spy stuff,” retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, first deputy secretary of defense for Special Operations and low-intensity conflicts, told the Monitor last year. “The idea is to keep your cards very close – you just don’t show your hand."

Given the military's involvement in the Alabama siege, those tactics became clear as soon as federal authorities took over from the local police force. "It was like everything was lit up, then the FBI got involved and, boom, everything went quiet," a local fireman told the British newspaper the Daily Mail last week.

So far, police are remaining mum even as Ethan is being released from the hospital just before his sixth birthday on Wednesday. At least outwardly, Ethan doesn't seem deeply affected by the ordeal, though reporters have not been able to penetrate a deep cordon of law enforcement to get more details.

While understandable, the tendency toward secrecy on the part of government – often strategic, but also due to a natural distrust of media – can create tension between the responsibilities of law enforcement and the public's right to know how its government is operating, says Rogan.

But aside from tactics, there are other details from the siege and raid that are likely to go unreported, he adds. One of them is how the decision to finally breach the compound was made. Police have said they were concerned about his erratic behavior, yet, to that point, Dykes had exhibited caring instincts for the boy.

"They may not fully disclose how he died immediately, and though it was obviously a success in that the child was rescued safe and unharmed, it was not a complete success, since a true complete success is one where there is no violent resolution," says Rogan, adding that 97 percent of hostage situations end nonviolently, according to FBI data.

Over the weekend, police said Dykes, who was scheduled to go to court last week over a misdemeanor charge of menacing his neighbors with a shotgun, had a "story [to tell] that's important to him, although it is very complex."

Officials have not yet elaborated on the story Dykes wanted to tell the world.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.