The failed attempt to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers in Yemen on Saturday – in which both Mr. Somers and fellow captive Pierre Korkie were killed, allegedly by their Al Qaeda-aligned captors – is part of a growing trend: US Special Operations Forces being dispatched to corners of the globe to rescue citizens in harms way.
There will be plenty of second-guessing about the effort. Was the element of surprise lost after the failed raid to rescue Somers on Nov. 25, which saw a number of other hostages held by the same group freed? Should they have swooped in by helicopter at speed, as the successful SEAL raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was handled, instead of the six mile march in on foot? Wasn't it likely that a dog – an early warning system used by humans for thousands of years – would reveal an approach on foot?
Then there is Mr. Korkie's situation. The South African's family and the aid group he worked for, Gift of the Givers, said they'd negotiated his release, which was scheduled to happen on Sunday. Korkie's wife, Yolande, had previously been released by the group. The US says it didn't know of Korkie's promised release, or even that he was held at the same location.
US officials say they had solid intelligence that the murder of Somers was imminent; last week Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) issued a video threatening to murder Somers if unspecified demands weren't met quickly.
Such efforts are inherently high-risk, and when they involve groups like AQAP, who were clearly willing to execute the civilians they'd kidnapped, they are generally going to end in failure more often than in success.
So why try at all, since it also carries risk to the troops sent on such missions, far away from bases and logistical support? Two reasons: The presumption that the captive's situation is hopeless, and the hope that showing a willingness to take such risks will dissuade groups from taking Americans hostage. The US government policy is to not pay ransom, unlike many other nations, though private ransoms are not illegal.
The track record for US hostage rescues is mixed, at best. In 2009, SEALS famously rescued Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama from Somali pirates at sea. In 2012 a SEAL raid in Somalia rescued an American and a Danish aid worker and killed nine of their captors. Later that year, American aid worker and physician Dilip Joseph was rescued from the Taliban in Afghanistan, though at the cost of the life of SEAL member Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque.
The US also tried and failed to rescue journalist James Foley from his Islamic State captors in Syria in July. The US said the raid killed a number of alleged militants, but Mr. Foley had been moved shortly before the attack. He was later horrifically beheaded in a videotaped murder.
In October 2010 SEAL Team Six was also involved in a failed attempt to rescue British aid worker Linda Norgrove from the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ms. Norgrove was killed by a grenade tossed by one of the SEALs.
The recent increase in attempted rescues is in part due to the unfortunate fact that there have been more hostage takings of American civilians in recent years and the jihadi groups responsible are generally more inclined to murder captives for propaganda value than other groups.
In VN I belonged to a unit that had among its tasks the rescue of US POWs. This was in the Blue Light program. We had a number of aircraft and some very special troops dedicated to this mission if the opportunity for a fairly safe rescue arose. It never did.
Intelligence several times located little camps inside South Vietnam where US POWs were being held. In each case the high command in VN decided not to risk the death or injury of the prisoners in a raid. They reasoned that the war would end soon and that the prisoners had a better chance of survival in waiting. In this case that is not true and so the US has little choice but to act.
In the case of the failed Yemen rescue, Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, defended the US approach.
"When you pay ransom, you get more kidnappings. That's certainly what we saw across Africa. We're certainly seeing it in Yemen as well," Representative Rogers told CNN. "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, men, women and children, that's a pretty bad plan to start with. I agreed with the president's decision."