SEAL Team 6 and the High Costs of Trying to Save American Lives

How many times have U.S. special ops raids left foreign hostages dead by accident?


The commandos had spent weeks searching for the Western hostage, but they finally had intelligence solid enough for a high-risk rescue attempt. Landing by helicopter, the members of SEAL Team 6 slowly made their way towards an enemy compound, silenced weapons in hand. They fought their way inside, but the hostage was seriously wounded during the firefight and died shortly thereafter.

This isn’t the tragic story of this weekend’s failed raid in Yemen to free American journalist Luke Somers, who was shot by one of his captors Saturday as the SEALs pushed deeper into the compound and died while in emergency surgery aboard a waiting U.S. Navy vessel. It’s the story of Linda Norgrove, an aid worker from the U.K. who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 during a similar rescue attempt. There are key differences between the two cases, but there are two unnerving similarities: Both raids failed, and in both missions hostages who died in rescue attempts by America’s most secretive and elite commandos weren’t American. Pierre Korkie, a South African aid worker, died alongside Somers. Adding to the tragedy, the aid group he worked for had negotiated a deal for his release and he was set to be freed in less than a day.

In a statement on the group’s Twitter account Monday, Korkie’s employers, the aid group Gift of the Givers, said “all logistical arrangements were in place 2 safely fly Pierre out of Yemen under diplomatic cover.” Imtiaz Sooliman, the group’s head, said Korkie’s wife — who had also been held in Yemen for a time — had been told he would soon be home. “I told her, ‘I’ll call you the moment Pierre is in our hands,’” Sooliman told the New York Times. “She went to sleep with that good feeling in her heart.”

Questions continue to swirl around Saturday’s failed raid, with U.S. officials claiming that they didn’t know Korkie was being held with Somers and that they were also unaware he was about to be released, according to Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesperson. Pentagon officials haven’t said why the SEALs lost the element of surprise or provided a more detailed chronology of the events that led to militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula shooting both men. Korkie died on a helicopter ferrying the two wounded men to the waiting Navy ship; Somers died onboard the vessel.

The botched American raid highlights the box that American policymakers have put themselves into by flatly ruling out the payment of ransoms to terror groups. Some Western countries, notably Germany, France, Spain, and Italy, have been willing to pay handsomely to secure the release of their citizens, and many European governments often turn a blind eye when families of missing hostages, or their employers, buy their freedom with large ransom payments. In the United States, the relatives of missing American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were told they could be prosecuted if they attempted to pay a ransom to win their freedom. Both men were later beheaded by militants from the Islamic State.

With ransoms off the table, the sole option U.S. policymakers have for trying to free missing American captives are high-risk military raids like this weekend’s failed mission in Yemen. Such operations are astoundingly difficult to pull off, and Saturday’s raid is at least the third U.S.-led hostage rescue mission to fail since July. Early that month, American commandos tried to free Sotloff and Foley, but they had been moved to another location shortly before the raiding party arrived. Late last month, American forces tried for the first time to free Somers, but that raid failed too, when only a group of Yemeni hostages was found in the cave targeted in the mission. Saturday’s failure forms a dismal trifecta.

But failure in these kinds of operations is to be expected; citing interviews with special operators, McClatchy puts the success rate at around 50 percent. Saturday’s operation isn’t the first time — and certainly won’t be the last — that a foreign hostage ended up dying during a U.S.-run rescue mission. In Norgrove’s case, for instance, a raiding party of SEALs and Army Rangers were sent in after U.S. intelligence officials concluded that she was in danger of being killed by her captors or moved to a militant-held area of Pakistan. During the raid, one of the SEALs threw a fragmentation grenade close to where Norgrove was hiding, killing her. The episode briefly strained American-British relations in the midst of the long Afghan war.

Indeed, the history of American hostage rescue missions is littered with failure. One of the Army’s elite Delta Force’s first missions was the botched attempt to free American hostages taken in 1979 when Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran. The mission had been carefully rehearsed, but came to a fiery end when one of its helicopters crashed into a transport plane. Eight American troops died and the hostages were ultimately imprisoned until 1981. U.S.-Iranian relations have never recovered.

Even the most celebrated mission in the history of hostage rescues can be read as a cautionary tale for the ability of commandos to spring captives. When in 1976, Israeli commandos descended on the airfield in Entebbe, Uganda, to free a plane carrying about 100 Jewish and Israeli hostages, they caught both Ugandan troops and the hijackers — a combination of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and members of the Baader-Meinhof gang — by complete surprise. One Israeli died in the raid — Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the current Israeli prime minister — as did three hostages. The operation is now regarded as one of the most audacious and pathbreaking in the history of hostage rescue, but it’s often forgotten that at least two of the hostages died after being accidentally shot by Israeli commandoes.

Americans, meanwhile, have lost their lives under similar circumstances. In 2002, two hostages, a Filipina nurse and American missionary Martin Burnham, died after being caught in the crossfire when Philippine troops, backed by the United States, attempted to rescue them. Burnham’s wife survived the raid. “First let me say how sad we are that Martin Burnham lost his life,” then-President George W. Bush said at the time. “I’m pleased that Mrs. Burnham is alive. That’s good.”

Good is not a word anyone would use to describe Saturday’s botched raid in Yemen. The only thing that kept it from being an even bigger debacle is that the SEALs made it out without suffering any casualties of their own. For the Somers and Korkie families, that will likely provide scant comfort.

Eddie Harrison/US Navy via Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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