TIME Terrorism

Handicapping the SEAL Raid to Rescue Luke Somers in Yemen

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A V-22 lifts off from the USS Makin Island near Yemen in October 2014, just as SEALs did early Saturday in their effort to rescue U.S. hostage Luke Somers. Lawrence Davis—U.S. Navy

The best troops and technology also need some luck

When Navy SEALs sought Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan three years ago, no one really cared if he ended up dead or alive. When SEALs flew into southern Yemen early Saturday to rescue American captive Luke Somers, they only succeeded in rescuing his body.

The sad outcome only highlights the challenges associated with two kinds of war: getting bad guys is a lot easier than getting good guys.

It’s like the Star Wars missile-defense shield writ small. In the raid to kill or capture bin Laden, the U.S. could crash one of its two choppers inside his walled compound and still declare victory. When playing offense, you can afford to break a lot of furniture along the way and still achieve success. But when you want to spring a captive to freedom, everything — intelligence, reconnaissance, weather, allies, and hardware, not to mention the troops themselves — has to work perfectly to accomplish the mission.

Think of it as drawing to an inside straight. Repeatedly.

Despite a reputation burnished by bin Laden’s banishment, such missions are never slam dunks. U.S. troops tried to rescue Somers in a Nov. 25 raid, but he had been moved days earlier. They’d tried to rescue American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff inside Syria in July, before the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria beheaded them. Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker, died in a U.S. rescue attempt in Afghanistan in 2010.

Plainly, trying to rescue hostages being held by suicidal zealots is a dicey proposition. The Internet lit up Sunday with debate over the merits of the mission. “Sharp contrast: @cnn calls Yemen op ‘failed msn’ repeatedly; @foxandfriends calls op ‘rescue attempt’ & praises it,” tweeted Phil Carter, an Army veteran of Iraq who is now at the Center for a New American Security.

That, of course, is the current, binary, cable-TV way. In reality, it was both: a praiseworthy rescue mission that failed. It’s too bad that such nuance is beyond the realm of much public discourse these days.

Part of the challenge is the U.S. refusal to negotiate with kidnappers of Americans, as some European nations do. The U.S. government has long maintained that paying ransom only heightens the chance that more Americans will be seized. But the refusal to negotiate increases the chance of U.S. captives being executed, which ratchets up pressure for the U.S. to launch rescue missions, however slim their chances of succeeding.

Following Somers’ death, President Barack Obama told the nation to expect more such efforts: “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.”

As Americans are learning, there is little to be gained by waiting, when dealing with al Qaeda and its carbon copies replicating along the ancient arc of crisis. “Earlier this week, a video released by his terrorist captors announced that Luke would be killed within 72 hours,” Obama said in Saturday’s statement. “Other information also indicated that Luke’s life was in imminent danger. Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt.”

Bottom line: the U.S. and its military had only a small window to try to rescue their fellow citizen. “They were going to kill this American hostage anyway,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN on Sunday.

So a raiding party, 40 SEAL Team 6 commandos and their associates, left the USS Makin Island off the Yemeni coast early Saturday local time on V-22 tilt-rotors. They landed near their objective amid rough terrain and began, as stealthily as possible, approaching their goal. Pentagon officials say they had come within 100 yards of Somers when something — it may have been a barking dog — alerted the militants guarding Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie. Reconnaissance revealed that once the jihadists knew they were under attack, a firefight broke out. One of the captors went inside a building, where he shot and mortally wounded the two men.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel detailed the complex nature of such an operation, shortly after it ended, while on a visit to Afghanistan:

A rescue mission for a hostage is a very complicated matter. It consists of intelligence that we must have tremendous confirmation or the best we can get on, even before an operation is considered. Intelligence is aware of where that hostage is, who is holding that hostage, where, all the dimensions of security around that hostage. The next piece of that is the operational plan itself, which is very complicated. Many parts, moving parts, all at one time.

It’s a safe bet that no one is more bitterly disappointed at the outcome, other than the men’s families, than those who carried it out. Their angst could only be compounded when the relief organization that employed Korkie said that his captors had planned to free him Sunday, the day after his murder, in a negotiated release.

The intelligence the SEALs had — harvested by satellites, drones and eavesdropping gear — was amazing. The rest of their hardware, from ship to shore and back again, apparently worked flawlessly.

But sometimes the best commandos and machines in the world lack the luck that is always a vital ingredient for such an assignment. That missing element shouldn’t detract from what they were trying to accomplish, and how close they came.

Read next: U.S. Hostage Killed During Failed Rescue Attempt in Yemen

TIME Terrorism

U.S. Hostage Killed During Failed Rescue Attempt in Yemen

Luke Somers killed in failed rescue attempt
A file photograph made available Dec. 4 shows Luke Somers, a 33-year-old British born US journalist who was kidnapped by al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate and was reportedly killed in failed rescue attempt. Yahya Arhab—EPA

Al Qaeda captors had threatened to kill him

U.S. hostage Luke Somers, held by an al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen for more than a year, was killed late Friday amid a U.S. rescue mission.

“There were compelling reasons to believe Mr. Somers’ life was in imminent danger,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said. “Both Mr. Somers and a second non-U.S. citizen hostage were murdered by the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorists during the course of the operation.” The second victim was South African teacher Pierre Korkie.

President Obama issued a statement saying he’d authorized the rescue attempt after the terrorists holding him “announced Luke would be killed within 72 hours” on Wednesday.

“I’m looking for any help that can get me out of this situation,” Somers said in a video posted by his captors on YouTube the same day. “I’m certain that my life is in danger. So as I sit here now, I ask if there’s anything that can be done, please let it be done.”

The rescue raid, conducted by U.S. Special Forces, was the second acknowledged attempt to rescue Somers. Following the first attempt Nov. 25, Somers’ captors had said he would kill him if certain “well known” actions were not taken, and warned a second rescue attempt would lead to his death.

Hagel gave few additional details about the mission, other than to say it took place in central Yemen, “in partnership” with the Yemeni government.

Lucy Somers, Luke’s sister, told the Associated Press that the FBI told her of her brother’s fate. “We ask that all of Luke’s family members be allowed to mourn in peace,” she said.

Before the failed raid, the White House denied any suggestion that it had delayed the original rescue attempt to debate its risks. One hostage rescued in that mission said Somers had been moved from the initial raid site shortly before the rescue attempt took place.

Somers, a 33-year old freelance reporter, had been kidnapped in the Yemeni capital of Sana 15 months ago.

Hagel said “several” AQAP terrorists were killed in Friday’s effort. Seven of them were killed in the first raid.

TIME Military

U.S. Attempted to Rescue Al Qaeda Hostage in Yemen

A video grab taken from a propaganda video released by al-Malahem Media on Dec. 4, 2014 purportedly shows hostage Luke Somers, 33, kidnapped more than a year ago in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, calling for help and saying that his life is in danger.
A video grab taken from a propaganda video released by al-Malahem Media on Dec. 4, 2014 purportedly shows hostage Luke Somers, 33, kidnapped more than a year ago in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, calling for help and saying that his life is in danger. AFP/Getty Images

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has threatened to kill photojournalist Luke Somers

The United States attempted to rescue an American hostage being held by an Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, according to the Pentagon.

Luke Somers, a 33-year-old photojournalist and interpreter, was captured in Yemen 14 months ago, reports ABC News. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released a video of Somers Wednesday night, threatening to kill him in three days if President Obama doesn’t “meet our demands.”

The Pentagon issued a statement Thursday to “provide accurate information” after The Washington Post, among others, reported an operation to rescue Somers and other hostages held in Yemen.

“The United States attempted a rescue operation recently to free a number of hostages, including U.S. citizen Luke Somers, held in Yemen by Al-Qaida [sic] in the Arabian Peninsula,” said a statement by Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby. “This operation was conducted in partnership with the armed forces of Yemen and involved air and ground components. Some hostages were rescued, but others — including Somers — were not present at the targeted location. Details about the mission remain classified.”

A Nov. 26 report in the New York Times said that eight hostages, including two Yemenis, had been rescued in the operation. It did not name Somers.

 

TIME Lebanon

The ISIS Leader’s Wife May Not Have Been Arrested After All

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
This file image made from video posted on a militant website Saturday, July 5, 2014, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq. AP

Some say the woman has no relation to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

The identity of Saja al-Dulaimi, the purported wife of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is being disputed.

The woman tried to enter Lebanon over a week ago, accompanied by a 4-year-old boy. She was arrested in a coordinated operation involving agencies from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, an unidentified intelligence source told CNN.

Her detention was widely reported, but different sources now claim that the woman is actually al-Baghdadi’s ex-wife, or a powerful figure within ISIS, or even unrelated.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry says that al-Baghdadi’s wives are called Asma Fawzi Mohammed al-Dulaimi and Israa Rajab Mahal Al-Qaisi and that the detained woman is neither of these.

The Lebanese authorities have made no official comment, and the CIA has not responded to claims that it was involved in the capture. ISIS members on social media deny that al-Baghdadi’s wife has been arrested.

Read more at CNN

TIME Media

How TIME Secured Its First Interview with Osama bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden
Osama bin Laden is shown in Afghanistan in this April 1998 file photo Anonymous—AP

In 1996, the magazine tracked him down

After the car carrying Sheik Abdullah Azzam hit a land mine, on this day 25 years ago — Nov. 24, 1989 — it took years for TIME to take note of what had come to pass: Azzam’s death meant that his number-two in the jihadi organization Azzam had founded would come to lead the movement.

That man was named Osama bin Laden. It was 25 years ago that he went from being a financier and deputy to the top global proponent of jihad.

Bin Laden received a small mention in TIME in 1993 in a list of figures related to the history of fighting in Afghanistan — but in 1996 the magazine’s Scott MacLeod secured an exclusive interview. Here’s how it happened, as he would describe in the May 6 issue of that year:

Osama bin Laden is a hard man to find. An exile from Saudi Arabia, he has lived in Sudan for five years, but he is a recluse, and his whereabouts are known only to his aides and a handful of Sudanese officials. To arrange to see him, I first had to track down one of bin Laden’s associates in London. Then, at a tearoom near Charing Cross Station, I made a request for a meeting. Several weeks later, bin Laden sent encouragement. I traveled to Khartoum, and waited for a few days at a hotel when a message came through the front desk, “The businessman will see you.”

A Toyota with black-tinted windows picked me up and drove me through Khartoum. Finally, after arriving at a building on the outskirts of the city, I was shown into a cramped office where several bodyguards stood watchfully. Tall, barefoot, smiling broadly, bin Laden greeted me in a gold-trimmed robe and red-checkered headdress.

The final story functions more as an introduction to extremism than as a profile of the man in question, but it nevertheless appears to hint at what the world now knows was the extent of his influence.

Read the full story here in the TIME Vault: The Palladin of Jihad

TIME Kenya

Kenya Says It Has Killed Around 100 al-Shabaab Fighters

Extremists hit in retaliation for the slaying of 28 travelers on Saturday

Kenya says it has killed around 100 al-Shabaab militants after pursuing them into Somalian territory.

The deaths are in reprisal for the slaying of 28 people on Saturday, when the extremist group stopped a bus in Kenya’s north and reportedly separated Muslims from non-Muslims before killing the latter.

“Two successful operations were carried out against the perpetrators of these murderous executions across the border,” Kenya’s Vice President William Ruto said on Sunday, according to Reuters.

The attacks, which have yet to be independently confirmed, reportedly destroyed one of al-Shabaab’s camps in Somalia, as well as four truckloads of weapons, the Guardian says.

Kenya has been the victim of several al-Shabaab attacks since Nairobi started battling the Somalia-based outfit in 2011. In September 2013, 67 people were killed in Nairobi after a group of militants seized the Westgate mall.

TIME Terrorism

The Long, Hard Slog Continues

Afghan policeman keeps watch at the site of a Taliban attack in Kabul
An Afghan policeman keeps watch at the site of a Taliban attack in Kabul on Wednesday. Omar Sobhani / Reuters

After 13 years, there is no "pause" button in the war on terror

On Saturday, Islamist militants halted a bus crammed with 60 passengers in northeastern Kenya, killing 28 who could not recite a Muslim declaration of faith. The same day, word leaked that President Obama has agreed to a stepped-up combat role for U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the original Dec. 31, 2014, deadline.

On Sunday, a suicide bomber killed at least 49 people—mostly kids—at a volleyball game in eastern Afghanistan. Later in the day, the Washington Post told of one of the final U.S. military units readying to ship out for Afghanistan, even as the Taliban grow in strength just outside Kabul.

As the brutality in Africa and Afghanistan suggests, the U.S. preoccupation with defining conflicts by country and calendar is the way nations, not terrorists, wage war. The U.S. mostly views the troubled map stretching from Libya to Pakistan as a chessboard governed by sovereign borders that its foes ignore.

“All across these unstable regions we are confronting a multitude of threats to the U.S. and our interests, from longstanding well-known terrorist groups but also from newer and much more loosely connected networks of like-minded violent extremists,” Nicholas Rasmussen, tapped to head the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing Thursday. These new breeds, he warned, “operate without regard to national borders or established organizational norms.”

Deaths caused by terrorism jumped from 11,133 in 2012 to 17,958 in 2013, a 61% hike, according to an independent accounting released last Tuesday. Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria accounted for 80% of the toll, according to the nonprofit Institute for Economics and Peace. Officials blamed four radical Islamist groups for two-thirds of the carnage.

Don Rumsfeld was right.

In the falls of 2003, the defense secretary defined the post-9/11 wars as a “long, hard slog.” Eleven years later, war-weary Americans—eager to escape wars that have no intention of letting them go, are gaining an appreciation for what he meant.

“The Middle East is in turmoil with the deepening of the enmity between Sunnis and Shias, the collapse of a number of nation states, really failed states, and the elimination of meaningful borders,” political scientist Michael Curtis wrote in an essay for the weekend’s Halifax International Security Forum (as if to prove the point, jihadists piggybacked on tweets from the gathering in Nova Scotia’s capital to distribute a video featuring a British captive being held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria).

Meanwhile, late Friday, the House Intelligence Committee issued a report concluding that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans was more screw-up than cover-up. For two years, lawmakers have sought to cast the event as an epic White House scandal, when reality has suggested it was more a string of mistakes and bad luck. A foreigner couldn’t be blamed if she thought GOP lawmakers viewed Obama as a bigger menace than al Qaeda. Imagine if all that partisan firepower had been directed at the real enemy.

The U.S. and its allies have yet to take on this spreading scourge in a way that is sustainable and successful. That’s going to require an international front willing to take on autocracies, kleptomaniacs and nascent nuclear powers. Success won’t come to politicians nervously glancing at their watches, or their electoral calendar. It’s going to take decades. (Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., took a tentative step in this direction over the weekend when he called for a U.S. declaration of a year-long war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.)

After his memo leaked in 2003, Rumsfeld groused to reporters that the U.S. too often measures the wrong things.

“We have lots of yardsticks and metrics where we can measure things like what’s taking place in Iraq, what’s taking place in Afghanistan, how we’re doing in the finances, how we’re doing in capturing and killing, for example, the top 55 Iraqi leaders or the top al Qaeda leaders,” he said.

But the U.S. and its allies too often have come up empty-handed when it comes to tallying the important numbers.

“How many young people are being taught to go out as suicide bombers and kill people?” Rumsfeld wanted to know. “That’s the question. How many are there? And how does that in-flow of terrorists in the world get reduced so that the number of people being captured or killed is greater than the ones being produced?”

More than a decade after Rumsfeld asked, we still have no idea.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 19

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Teach data literacy in elementary school.

By Mohana Ravindranath in the Washington Post

2. A new app lets kids explore the life and living conditions of other children around the world.

By Laura Bliss in CityLab

3. Politics inside Yemen — once a reliable U.S. ally and success story in the war on terror — has pushed the nation out of our influence.

By Adam Baron in Defense One

4. When it comes to science and health news, radio might save journalism.

By Anna Clark in Columbia Journalism Review

5. Rooftop solar power could beat the price of coal in two years — if utilities don’t shut it down.

By Lucas Mearian in ComputerWorld

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Israel

Israel Demolishes East Jerusalem Home of Palestinian Behind Car Attack

Abdelrahman Al-Shaludi killed two in the October attack

Israeli security forces have destroyed the home of a Palestinian man who carried out a car attack in October that left two people dead and several injured, the military said Tuesday.

The demolition came soon after Israeli Primer Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to win a “battle for Jerusalem” after an attack on a synagogue left five dead. Tension over a disputed holy site and repercussions from the 50-day conflict in the Gaza Strip over the summer have contributed to growing unrest in Jerusalem in recent weeks.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed in a statement that the IDF and police forces had demolished the home Abdelrahman Al-Shaludi, a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, who authorities say killed a baby girl and a young woman when he rammed his car into a light rail station on Oct. 22. Al-Shaludi was shot by officers at the scene and died of his wounds soon after.

MORE: Chaos and mourning in Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Speaking on Tuesday evening, Netanyahu vowed to “settle the score with every terrorist” and said he had also “ordered the destruction of the homes of the Palestinians who carried out [Tuesday’s] massacre and to speed up the demolitions of those who carried out previous attacks,” BBC reports.

Israel halted its controversial policy of demolishing the homes of militants in 2005 after a review committee found it did not act as an effective deterrent, but Netanyahu revived the practice this year.

TIME Libya

Report: ISIS Takes Control of a Libyan City

An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, consisting of former members of militias from the town of Derna, drive along a road in Derna, eastern Libya
An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, consisting of former members of militias from the town of Derna, drive along a road in Derna, eastern Libya on October 3, 2014. Reuters

Derna is just hours from Tobruk, where what's left of the central government is based

Militants loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) are now in control of a Libyan city of near the Egyptian border, according to a new report.

CNN, citing unnamed Libyan sources, reports that militants control Derna, a city only a few hours from Tobruk, where the remnants of Libya’s central government fled to after being forced out of the capital this summer. Approximately 300 of the 800-strong force in control of Derna are reportedly hard-line Libyan jihadists who fought with ISIS in Iraq an Syria.

The report is the latest sign of ISIS looking to expand its footprint across the Middle East despite U.S.-led air strikes against it in Iraq and Syria. Libya has been in turmoil since the fall of former strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011

Read more at CNN

Read next: Terrorism-Related Deaths Up 60% Last Year, Study Says

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