Report

Can the Islamic State’s Last Hostages Be Saved?

The brutal killing of a missing Jordanian pilot means that military force may be the only way of freeing captives in Syria -- including a 26-year-old American aid worker.

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The Islamic State’s brutal killing of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh means that a rescue by elite U.S. military forces could be the only realistic hope of survival for the group’s one known remaining American hostage, a 26-year-old female aid worker who the U.S. government believes was alive as recently as two weeks ago.

Barack Obama’s administration has been bitterly divided for months about whether, or how, to negotiate with the Islamic State, which controls broad swaths of Iraq and Syria and has held hostages from the United States, Britain, Japan, and an array of other countries. European countries like France and Germany were able to effectively buy the lives of their captives by allegedly paying the group multimillion-dollar ransoms. The Jordanian government, meanwhile, set a new precedent this week by publicly agreeing to the Islamic State’s demands that it release a female terrorist from the country’s death row as part of a hostage trade.

The bloody failure of Amman’s attempts to bargain with the Islamic State means that the United States may have no real options, short of military force, for winning the release of the aid worker, whom Foreign Policy has refused to identify at the request of her family. The militants haven’t shown any willingness to seriously negotiate ransom terms for American hostages — the group’s initial demand for American journalist James Foley was a sky-high $132.5 million — and they have also now rebuffed the one government willing to openly bargain with the group. The Islamic State could choose to release her as an act of mercy, in part to deflect the widespread outrage sparked by the pilot’s murder, and it’s possible that an intermediary like Qatar could help broker an agreement with the group. Neither seems particularly likely, however, and no talks are known to be taking place.

That effectively leaves the woman’s fate in the hands of the U.S. military’s most elite special operations forces, which would be charged with finding her and then mounting a high-risk mission to bring her back.

A former officer with the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) said that, even with fully accurate intelligence on the woman’s location, a rescue mission’s chance of success would be “less than 50 percent.”

“The problem with a JSOC snatch right now [is that] it’s a cross-border op,” he said, stressing the difficulty of sending troops into Syria as compared with conducting operations within Iraq, where the United States already has access to multiple military bases.

Pulling off a rescue mission would be fiendishly difficult. A JSOC task force spearheaded by dozens of Delta Force operators mounted a risky operation near Raqqa, Syria, in the early hours of July 3, 2014, to try to rescue American hostages Foley and Steven Sotloff. The team had trained for weeks, and the raid went off without a hitch. By the time the operators reached the target, however, the hostages were gone. Some U.S. officials believe the men may have been moved less than 72 hours before the failed raid. Both Foley and Sotloff were later beheaded.

As that failure indicates, the success of any rescue mission requires exquisitely accurate intelligence on the hostage’s location, which the United States does not appear to have in the case of the Islamic State’s hostages. After the release of the video that showed the terrorist group killing Kasasbeh by burning him alive, the Defense Department’s press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, told reporters on Feb. 3 that the United States had worked with Jordan to locate Kasasbeh, without success.

“We had been working closely with Jordanian officials since he was captured … to do what we could to try to help locate him,” Kirby said. “But I’m not aware that … there was any success in that regard. So, there would’ve been no ability to try to mount an overt rescue opportunity.”

However, the United States has apparently received some recent information about the American woman still being held hostage. A senior U.S. intelligence official said there was a specific reason as recently as two weeks ago to believe that she was still alive. The official refused to say the reason, but said the issue of how to secure her release has been the topic of intense discussions within the Obama administration in recent days.

Among the options, the intelligence official said, is a military raid similar to the one last July that was too late to rescue the two hostages, who had been moved by the time the helicopters bearing Delta operators arrived. But the administration is divided on whether the families of hostages should have a say beforehand about, or even the ability to veto, a military rescue mission. Chastened by another failed JSOC rescue attempt — a December mission in Yemen, during which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula killed American photojournalist Luke Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie as JSOC operators closed in — U.S. officials have been hesitant to try again in Syria, where the American woman is believed to be held, the official said.

The intelligence official said it’s believed that the Islamic State now holds fewer than 20 hostages from around the world. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the internal discussions.

In the Iraq War, if JSOC received intelligence on a target, “we probably had been there, we knew all about it, we had people in there, we had foundational logic … and could launch these things at a moment’s notice,” the former JSOC officer said. “It was a battle drill.”

Syria, he said, is a different situation entirely. “If you go into Syria, one, you’ve got to worry about the Syrians,” he said. “Then you’ve got to worry about ISIS — the bad guys on the ground — and deal with them. And we don’t have anybody on the ground, so everything’s got to be from the air.”

The former JSOC officer suggested that the best hope for success in such a mission might be to have operators conduct a night free-fall parachute jump into a drop zone that was offset from the target building and have them move stealthily to the assault while holding the helicopters that would be used to fly the force back out of Syria as far from the target as possible until the last possible moment. “As soon as the aircraft cross the border, everyone’s tweeting, ‘Here they come,’” he said. “So the information age has killed cross-border helo ops,” he said.

Even stealthy helicopters such as those that conducted the raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden are no guarantee against this 21st-century dynamic, he said. “The stealth is for the radar,” he said. “You can still hear the helicopters.”

The Jordanian pilot’s fate thus portends an ill future for the remaining American hostage, the former officer said. “It’s bad news for her,” he said. “It’s not if, it’s when.”

Kate Brannen contributed reporting.

AFP/Getty Images

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. @seandnaylor

Lara Jakes is the deputy managing editor of news for Foreign Policy magazine and a former war correspondent, Baghdad bureau chief and award-winning senior national security and diplomatic writer for The Associated Press. She's a 1995 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband. @larajakesFP

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