WASHINGTON – The death of two hostages during a rescue attempt in Yemen shows how little room there is for bad intelligence or bad luck when U.S. forces go into action on such high-risk missions.
Faulty intelligence doomed a raid in Syria earlier this year to rescue American journalist James Foley, who was not where he was thought to be and was subsequently beheaded in August by Islamic State militants.
British aid worker Linda Norgrove was accidentally killed by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in October 2010, though the team’s initial report blamed her captors for the grenade that caused her death.
And a barking dog, by official accounts, alerted al-Qaida fighters of approaching U.S. Special Forces personnel seeking to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie.
“Every operation is done with the expectation of it being successful and the realization that in some cases it doesn’t work,” Barbara Bodine, a retired career Foreign Service officer who was ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001, said in a telephone interview.
While such missions may fail, U.S. officials say they often have little to lose and much to gain by trying, with so many hostages now being killed by Islamic militants. Even if captives die in the attempt, they are spared becoming a gruesome spectacle on extremist videos.
President Barack Obama made that point as he announced Somers’ death Saturday.
“Earlier this week, a video released by his terrorist captors announced that Luke would be killed within 72 hours. Other information also indicated that Luke’s life was in imminent danger,” Obama said in a statement. “Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt.”
Obama’s outgoing defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, said Sunday he saw no need for a review of hostage rescue procedures.
No rescue is ever recommended “unless there is a complete, thorough internal review of intelligence,” Hagel told reporters in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of going back and having a review,” he said. “Our process is about as thorough as it can be.”
There have been successes.
Most famously, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers in 2009 freed Richard Phillips, the captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, whose rescue at sea from Somali pirates became the basis for the movie “Captain Phillips.”
Late last month, members of SEAL Team Six and Yemeni forces freed eight hostages held in a cave in eastern Yemen, though the group did not include Somers, who had been moved days earlier. The subsequent mission in the southern Yemeni region of Shabwa was based in part on intelligence gleaned from the previous attempt, U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details.
“It’s hard to draw any single lesson from these types of operations,” said Brian Katulis, a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy research group. “They are inherently risky and the odds of success, I think, are always fairly low.”
Katulis said the calculation is to weigh the risks of action against the consequences of not acting.
Since the U.S. has “a policy of not negotiating with terrorists and not paying ransom to terrorists — which I think are correct policies — then the flip side of that is you need to develop some risk tolerance” toward hostage-rescue missions, said Douglas Ollivant, who served on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.
Several al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) captors were killed in the latest raid, and at least seven were killed in the previous rescue operation, officials said. Somers and Korkie were fatally wounded by their captors before commandos could reach them inside the compound, officials said.
Ollivant and Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator now at Dartmouth College, said the U.S. has far more capability to undertake such operations in Yemen than in areas of Iraq and Syria controlled by Islamic State.
“The willingness to take on a bit of risk is probably greater in Yemen simply because intelligence collection has been going on so much longer there and because we have a positive relationship, and at this point a fairly deep relationship, with the Yemeni authorities who we have found to be committed to countering AQAP,” Benjamin said in a phone interview. “In Syria, we really are just still in the early stages of collecting the necessary intelligence to operate effectively there.”
The CIA and U.S. Special Forces have been running a covert program against AQAP since 2002. As of Nov. 12, there had been 107 strikes that U.S. intelligence officials have said killed 532 terrorists and more than 100 civilians.
To support those operations, U.S. officials said, American intelligence, military and law enforcement officials have built relationships with their Yemeni counterparts and maintained close satellite and unmanned aircraft surveillance of the country, with Predator, Reaper and other drones operating from the U.S. base in Djibouti.
That, said one official, who like the others requested anonymity to discuss intelligence operations, has provided much better and more timely intelligence on AQAP than the U.S. has been able to collect on Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
“We have had a very long and cooperative relationship with the Yemenis on counterterrorism,” said Bodine, who is now director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Washington. “They understand and share the sense that al-Qaida is a threat — far more Yemenis have died at the hands of AQAP than Americans.”
In its 2013 report on terrorism, the State Department said that Yemeni President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi “supported U.S. counterterrorism operations” and that U.S. military advisers had trained Yemeni counterterrorism units and advised efforts to restructure the defense ministry.
Nevertheless, the officials said, high-confidence intelligence on Yemen remains limited.
For example, U.S. attacks have failed to kill the most- wanted terrorist in the country, bomb designer Ibrahim al-Asiri, who is thought to be working on implanting explosives in clothing or in the human body capable of taking down an airliner. An April 19 drone attack on a truck moving on a highway missed al-Asiri, officials said.
The intelligence effort in Yemen was stepped up during the summer of 2013, after officials uncovered an apparent AQAP plot in late July that prompted the closing of more than 20 American embassies, consulates and other facilities in the Middle East. A subsequent public statement by one of the plotters, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, made it clear that the Yemen-based group is targeting Americans.
In Syria and Islamic State-controlled parts of that country and Iraq, the officials said, the U.S. and its allies lack a partner comparable to the Yemeni government or to Saudi Arabia, which maintains surveillance over the so-called “Empty Quarter” that straddles the ill-defined border between the two countries and is the tribal home of the bin Laden clan.
In addition, the officials said, Yemen’s proximity to the sea and to Djibouti make it somewhat more accessible to U.S. operations than eastern Syria and western Iraq.
Obama indicated that despite the risks, the U.S. has not lost its appetite for rescue missions.
“As this and previous hostage rescue operations demonstrate, the United States will spare no effort to use all of its military, intelligence, and diplomatic capabilities to bring Americans home safely, wherever they are located,” Obama said. “And terrorists who seek to harm our citizens will feel the long arm of American justice.”