The US is to push ahead with military rescue operations in spite of a series of recent failures, culminating in a failed Yemen attack that left up to 13 dead, including American photojournalist Luke Somers and South African teacher Korkie.
US defence secretary Chuck Hagel ruled out a review of how the military and intelligence deal with hostages crises. The White House last month rejected any prospect of rethinking its opposition to the payment of ransoms.
The failed weekend raid raised questions about the success rate of such operations. In contrast with a string of high-profile successes over the last decade, such as the rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009, the ratio since has been poor, especially over the last two years.
The Yemen operation was the third failed rescue attempt since July this year.
The failed raid has led to questions over the lack of coordination between the US and a South African charity that had been negotiating Korkie’s release and which said it believed he was within 24 hours of being released.
Korkie and Somers had been held by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Hagel, asked by a reporter during a visit to Afghanistan whether there is a need for a review of intelligence gathering and other aspects of such raids, defended the operation. He said no raid was ever given the go-ahead without a complete, thorough review of intelligence and whether it matched up with the operational plan.
“Then, of course, you start with the real question: how much risk do we believe that the hostage is in?” Hagel said. “Is the hostage’s life being threatened, based on our best intelligence? Is it imminent? How much time do we have? Are there other ways that we can get the hostage back?”
The defence secretary said that, given the amount of focus and time devoted to planning, he did not think “it’s a matter of going back and having a review of a process”.
The US confirmed that there was a lack of coordination with a South African charity which said Korkie had been hours away from being released.
The US ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard, admitted the US had been “unaware of ongoing negotiations that had any resolution” between a South African charity and the hostage-takers to free Korkie. He added it was not clear either that the South African government had been aware of this.
The raid was prompted by an al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) video posted online on Thursday, threatening to kill Somers within three days.
Somers’ stepmother Penny Bearman told the Times her husband was “quite angry... because if there had not been a rescue attempt, he would still be alive”. She added: “We are sure that Luke would have given support to the ongoing discussions [to secure his release] in Yemen rather than the conflict approach.”
Bruce Riedel, who was White House adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan in the first Obama administration, said the president is discovering what a nightmare hostage problems can be.
Riedel, who is now at the Brookings Institution, told Reuters: “I don’t see a lot of room for change in American policy.”
The US had to try to mount rescues, he said. The message it sends is “one: we’re not going to pay; and two: the hostage-takers are at great risk”.
Dealing with hostage crises is increasingly being left to private-sector companies who are enjoying a boom in business.
The US refusal to pay ransoms – a policy shared by the UK, Australia and Algeria – makes military intervention more likely. The approach of some European countries is more ambiguous, often facilitating ransom payments by families, companies or charities.
“The majority of those successfully resolved are through private negotiations,” said Jordan Perry, the lead analyst for Yemen, Iraq and Kurdistan, with the UK-based Maplecroft risk-analytics company, which advises the private sector. “Military action is the last resort.”
Private sector companies dealing with hostage-taking estimate the chances of successful rescue operations are only about 50-50 – or even less – given the range of things that can go wrong. A rescue operation in July failed to find American journalist James Foley, who was later beheaded by Islamic State. An attempt to find Somers in August saw eight Yemenis rescued but not the journalist. The last US success is thought to be when Navy Seals rescued an American and Dane in Somalia in 2012, killing nine hostage-takers.
Such operations are extremely risky, prone to error or the unexpected. The rescue by special forces of Captain Phillips whose ship taken by Somali pirates required a shot by snipers bobbing about at sea. The raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan almost turned into a disaster for US special forces in 2011 when one of their helicopters crashed.
But an attempt to rescue an aid worker in Afghanistan in 2010 ended in her death and an operation the following year to rescue hostages from Somali pirates also ended with fatalities.
There are scores of Americans and Europeans held around the world. Islamist groups like al-Nusrah in Syria are more inclined to enter into ransom negotiations over Westerners than Islamic State, which values them mainly from a propaganda point of view rather than in terms of fund-raising.
According to a private-sector analyst, Islamic State asked for $130 million (£83 million) for Foley, a demand that effectively ruled out negotiation, at least in cash terms.
In strict legal terms, families that negotiate with hostages are potentially in danger of breaking at least US law, open to accusations of funding terrorism.
In the Yemen rescue attempt, about 40 members of the special forces were dropped by helicopters in Yemen’s Shabwa province before dawn on Saturday for what they hoped would be a surprise attack. The US has not officially said what alerted the hostage-takers, only that the hostage-takers began firing wildly.
A Bloomberg news report said the guards in Yemen at the weekend were alerted to the approach of US special forces by a barking dog. The Pentagon has denied the two Westerners were killed in crossfire, saying one of the hostage-takers had gone into the building where the two men were being held and executed them.
The two were still alive when special forces reached them, according to the Pentagon. They were taken by helicopter to USS Makin Island in the Gulf of Aden but one died on the way and other on the ship.
While Hagel ruled out a review, the White House announced in November it is conducting in a wide-ranging review of the whole way in which it approaches hostage crises because of the number of Americans being kidnapped. Hagel may have referring to the narrow issue of military and intelligence operations when ruling out a review whereas the White House is looking at the bigger picture. Among the issues being looked at by the White House is better coordination between government agencies and improvements in handling hostages’ families, who are often kept in the dark.