It is the early morning hours of December 6, 2014, and you find yourself armed with an AK-47 as a member of Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The media calls you the most feared and capable al-Qaeda affiliated group in the world. You are standing over two hostages: an American photojournalist and a South African teacher. The South African’s release was secured through a $200,000 paid ransom, and you’re scheduled to return him to his family and friends in less than a day.
But less than two weeks ago, American commandos from SEAL Team 6, along with Yemeni special operations forces, raided one of your group’s hideouts in the middle of the night. From watching the Western media, you know the small details of the secret operation: In the dead of night, the commandos silently crept through the deserts of Yemen to a small cave in the mountainous region near the border with Saudi Arabia.
The Americans, armed with what were most likely suppressed MP7 sub-machine guns and HK416 assault rifles, entered the cave and immediately shot and killed seven of your fellow ‘brothers’. They rescued eight hostages. But the man they came for is now the same one sleeping on the ground in front of you—Luke Somers. The same one you and your group moved to this new location just two days prior to the American raid. You and the other members of your terrorist group have been on edge since that night. You have not slept well in two weeks. You don’t know if tonight will be the night the American commandos return.
The seven men they killed previously were some of the best fighters in the group. None of them managed to get a shot off when they were ambushed by the rescuers. You are told to kill both hostages immediately at the first sign of a second rescue attempt. As you fight the urge to fall asleep you hear it. Dogs barking, followed by the loud snap of suppressed rifle fire. Not a sound you have heard many times in your life, but you still recognize its distinctness. “The Americans are back!” a fellow fighter yells as he runs inside the building.
You stand up knowing what you must do as the two prisoners are startled awake from the gunfire outside. You raise your rifle without hesitation and open fire at point-blank range at the two hostages. You replace your used magazine with a fresh one and run outside to join the other men in repelling the American forces. You and five of your fellow fighters are killed minutes later.
(Photo Courtesy: BBC)
It was the second hostage rescue attempt within 10 days to free the American citizen Luke Somers, born in the UK, but raised in Washington and California. The details of the November 26 rescue attempt weren’t publicly released until December 4, just two days prior to the second rescue attempt.
The accounts of the first raid read like a Hollywood movie: a helicopter insertion in the middle of the night, a silent trek through the desert, a complete surprise attack against the al-Qaeda forces resulting in seven dead enemy fighters, and a successful rescue of all the hostages.
The second attempt had the SEALs again flown in a few miles from the village, but as they approached the compound they were immediately compromised. Anybody who has conducted a night infiltration operation in Iraq or any Middle Eastern village knows stealth and the element of surprise can disappear in an instant—the moment those damn dogs get a whiff of you. It’s the enemy’s version of an early warning system and it rarely fails.
It is easy to sit back and armchair quarterback the failed operation. “Why would they go in full force like that? Why couldn’t they conduct another smaller-scale stealth operation like they did against the cave hideout?” It’s important to understand all the facts; the American and South African hostages were moved to a village.
Many factors come into play in this type of situation: village population, tribal allegiances, specific location of the hostage, etc. It’s not difficult to surprise an enemy hiding out in a cave where they feel safe. But an enemy that knows you are actively hunting them? There are too many intelligence gaps and unknowns that would prohibit a team of commandos from silently creeping through a populated village.
(Photo Courtesy: NPR)
With all the intelligence on the table, it was decided by the SEALs themselves that they would fly in on three V-22 Ospreys in the middle of the night while the Yemeni ground forces would secure all roads in and out of the village. 40 SEALs from a currently undisclosed squadron inserted outside the village and fought their way into the target building. They found Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie gravely wounded but still alive. Both men would succumb to their wounds within hours of the rescue.
Without a doubt, an unfortunate turn of events. Even worse when supplemented by the fact that the South African was scheduled to be released that following day. But the cards were stacked against the rescuers. There is no happy ending when you’re forced to conduct a hostage rescue for the second time for the same individual.