Hani Mohammed/AP/File
Luke Somers, an American photojournalist who was kidnapped over a year ago by al-Qaida, poses for a picture during a parade marking the second anniversary of the revolution in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2013. Somers has been killed in a failed rescue attempt, his sister said Saturday.

Failed hostage raid in Yemen: why there'll be more rescues to come

There's been a growing use of Special Forces to try to rescue American hostages from Islamist militants. Given the difficulties, the track record is unavoidably mixed.

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.

Col. (Ret.) Pat Lang served as a Green Beret in Vietnam, and draws attention to why this is important in a post today (emphasis mine).

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."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Failed hostage raid in Yemen: why there'll be more rescues to come
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today