Another Rescue Gone Wrong

Late Friday night, American photojournalist Luke Somers and a South African teacher Pierre Korkie, who were being held hostage in Yemen by al-Qaeda militants, were killed by their captors during a failed rescue attempt by US special forces:

It was the second U.S. attempt to free Somers in 10 days and Kerry said it had been approved because of information that Somers’ life was in imminent danger. “It was our assessment that that clock would run out on Saturday,” one U.S. official said. However, the Gift of the Givers relief group, which was trying to secure Korkie’s release, said it had negotiated for the teacher to be freed and had expected that to happen on Sunday and for him to be returned to his family.

Somers’s death, after two attempts to free him, has reignited the debate over whether the US’s policy of never paying ransoms for captives held by terrorist groups is appropriate. Joel Simon argues that it’s time to rethink that blanket prohibition:

The US government has said it will not review the prohibition on paying ransom, which I believe is a missed opportunity.

While I accept the US government’s logic that the payment of ransom increases the risk for kidnapping, there should be some flexibility built into the policy to address extenuating circumstances. The review should certainly explore ways to engage with hostage takers through other means. According to Diane Foley, her son’s kidnappers were angered by the fact that the US government refused to respond to their emails. Communication with kidnappers is not the same thing as negotiating with kidnappers. It is akin to the local police talking through a bullhorn to someone holding up a bank in order to buy time, gain intelligence, and seek a possible resolution. Talking should be a normal and natural response when lives are at stake.

But the Bloomberg View editors are still resolutely opposed to changing the policy:

Since 2008, the kidnapping-for-ransom industry has raised as much as $165 million for terrorist organizations, most of it paid by European governments. Those governments routinely deny making the payments, because they know it’s bad policy: It encourages further kidnappings, and it funds terrorist operations as well as the slaughter of civilians in the Middle East and Africa. It also contravenes multiple international commitments.

As for the U.S. and U.K. governments that ran the unsuccessful military raid, there are certainly questions as to how they failed to know that Korkie’s release was to happen on Saturday, or that he might be with Somers. But whatever the answers, they are irrelevant to the question of whether governments should ransom their citizens. That calculation remains the same: The only way to end the ransom business is to close the market.

Jonathan Tobin criticizes the South African charity that was working to ransom Korkie:

Unfortunately, the problem with ransoms is not limited to the aid the transactions give to the terrorists. By not coordinating with Western governments, the efforts of groups like the Gift of the Givers charity—the organization that was working for Korkie’s release—make it difficult, if not impossible for the U.S. military to avoid operations that might interfere with a hostage’s release. Instead of castigating the United States for a rescue operation that went wrong, those who, even for altruistic reasons, conduct negotiations that aid the terrorists are ultimately to blame.

Jazz Shaw zooms out:

I’m sure there will be some backlash since we failed to get Somers out alive, but given the circumstances it doesn’t sound like the odds were very good in the first place. A better question is what we should be doing about Yemen in the long run. The government there, such as it is, appears to be on the brink of collapse. Their leadership has been pointing their fingers at Washington and accusing the Obama administration of fomenting unrest. They lost control of their own capital, Sana, earlier this year to a group of rebels called the Houthis. Outside of a couple of major population centers, nobody is in control, which is probably what made it such an attractive destination for al Qaeda.

With no reliable governmental partner to work with, our options appear limited except for high risk military incursions such as this one. And until the larger problem of terrorist networks is dealt with, I’m afraid we can expect repeat performances of this raid in the future.