Shortly after US Navy SEALS rescued two hostage aid workers – an American and a Dane – in a risky raid in Somalia in January 2012, President Obama issued an unambiguous warning to the growing number of militant groups using kidnapping for income or other deal-making.
“The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to bring their captors to justice,” Mr. Obama said in a statement after the successful rescue.
But now nearly three years later and after a string of unsuccessful raids to free American hostages, criticism is mounting of the tough US approach to hostage-taking that rules out paying ransom and relies on high-risk rescue operations.
On Saturday, Navy SEALS were sent into a remote area of Yemen to rescue British-born American photojournalist Luke Somers, who had appeared in a video last week saying his Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula captors would kill him in three days if certain demands were not met.
Obama responded by ordering the rescue operation – but Mr. Somers was killed by his Al Qaeda captors as the raid was underway.
Criticism of US policy after the failed raid has sharpened after it was revealed Monday that South African hostage Pierre Korkie, also murdered by Al Qaeda as the raid took place, was perhaps just hours from being freed in a ransom deal.
Saturday’s failed special operations raid was the third attempt at hostage rescue in recent months, after a November try at snatching Somers and a July raid in Syria aimed at rescuing American journalist James Foley. Such rescue missions have increased both because extremist groups are seizing more Western hostages for ransom, and because US forces have developed a certain confidence – as after the successful 2012 mission – with experience, Pentagon officials say.
With no indication that the US is considering altering its policy, the families and supporters of hostages (not all of them American) who have lost their lives after recent unsuccessful raids are left to wonder if a different approach might have had a different outcome.
Some regional experts say diplomatic efforts short of paying ransom should be considered – although national security analysts and government officials say no one should expect anything that amounts to negotiating with terrorists to come out of an ongoing review of hostage policy that Obama ordered last summer.
Despite that review, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel suggested there will be no major change in hostage-response policy.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of going back and having a review of our process,” Secretary Hagel said during a tour in Afghanistan Sunday.
“Is it imperfect? Yes. Is there risk? Yes. But we start with the fact that we have an American that’s being held hostage and that American’s life is in danger,” he added, “and then we proceed from there.”
Obama’s order launching the attempted rescue of Somers received bipartisan support, suggesting there is little appetite among congressional lawmakers for any revision of policy that would question the use of special operations raids to rescue American citizens.
“I agreed with the president’s decision,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, (R) of California, said on CNN Sunday. “It was an unfortunate outcome,” he said, “but I do believe you have to make these kinds of decisions.”
The US should not respond to rescues that don’t succeed by questioning the no-ransom policy, Congressman Rogers added.
“When you pay ransom, you get more kidnappings,” he said, adding that recent experience in Africa and in Yemen bears that out. “If we’re going to be extorted into paying ransom to Al Qaeda so that they can rape women and blow up buildings and kill civilians … that’s a pretty bad plan to start with.”
Questioning of the US policy against paying ransom to terrorist groups spiked earlier this year after Islamic State militants in Syria issued videos showing the beheadings of American and British hostages.
Both the US and Britain refuse to pay ransoms. But other Islamic State hostages from European countries that are known to pay ransoms were set free.
Terrorism experts estimate that hostage-taking has become a principle source of income for many militant groups. For example, the Islamic State, which controls a broad swath of Iraq and Syria and also has ample oil resources, has received between $35 and $45 million in ransom in recent years, according to United Nations’ estimates.
In the case of Mr. Korkie, the South African citizen killed by Al Qaeda during the SEALS raid to rescue Somers, it was the South African charity organization Korkie was working for that had negotiated his release, reportedly for a ransom of $200,000.
Like the US, the South African government has a strict policy against paying ransom. American officials said Monday the US was unaware of the civilian channels that apparently were on the verge of success in freeing Korkie when the raid occurred.