AP Enterprise: War experience aids hostage rescues

Feb 2, 2012, 2:40 PM

Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Roy Hallums was enduring his 311th day of captivity, blindfolded, his hands and feet bound, stuffed into a hole under the floor of a farm building outside Baghdad. He heard a commotion upstairs and managed to get the blindfold off. Delta Force troops broke open the hatch. An American soldier jumped down.

“He looks at me and points and says, ‘Are you Roy?’ I say ‘yes,’ and he yells back up the stairs: ‘Jackpot!'” Hallums recalled in a phone interview with The Associated Press six years after his rescue.

Another mission by elite U.S. troops took place just last week, this time in Somalia, resulting in an American and a Danish hostage being rescued and nine kidnappers killed.

U.S. special forces units are compiling a string of successful hostage rescues, thanks to improved technology and a decade of wartime experience. But despite technological advances like thermal imaging and surveillance drones, the raids remain high-risk. Success or failure can depend on a snap decision made by a rescuer with bullets flying all around, or determination by kidnappers to kill any captives before they can be freed.

In 2010, the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6 tried to rescue Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker, from her Taliban captors in Afghanistan. She was killed by a grenade thrown in haste by one of the American commandoes.

The kidnappings of foreigners living or traveling overseas continues unabated, as it has for decades. While the probability of a person being kidnapping is low, abductions do occur regularly, especially in high-risk nations like Somalia, Pakistan, Mexico and Colombia.

Even those who are supremely aware of the risks can disappear. In December 2006, Felix Batista, an American anti-kidnapping expert and negotiator for hostage releases, was kidnapped in Saltillo, Mexico, and hasn’t been heard from since.

Just last Tuesday, armed tribesmen in Yemen kidnapped six United Nations workers: an Iraqi, a Palestinian, a Colombian, a German and two Yemenis. On Jan. 20, kidnappers grabbed an American and held him for a week before releasing him, perhaps after a ransom was paid.

U.S. troops have been tasked with rescues mostly in areas where American forces were already stationed, like Afghanistan, Iraq and around Somalia, said Taryn Evans, an expert on kidnappings at AKE, a risk mitigation company outside London. As they’ve gotten more experienced, they’ve gotten better.

In 2009, SEAL sharpshooters killed three Somali pirates holding the American captain of the Maersk Alabama hostage in a lifeboat. And late last month, U.S. Navy SEALs parachuted into Somalia under cover of night, then moved on foot to where captors were holding an American woman and a Danish man who had been kidnapped together in October. The SEALs killed nine captors and rescued the two hostages while suffering no casualties themselves in the Jan. 25 operation.

Their skill in carrying out such missions has been honed by America’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Seth Jones, a civilian adviser to the commanding general of the U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan from 2009-2011.

“They have conducted so many operations in these areas, from hostage rescues to strike operations to capture-kill missions. What it does is significantly improves the competence of special operations,” Jones told The Associated Press. He said commando missions are “now routine.”

Though Navy SEAL Team 6 rescued the American and the Dane, one American kidnapped in January in Somalia remains behind. His captors told AP they moved him several times in the hours immediately after the SEAL raid, out of fear the U.S. military could try another rescue attempt.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said this week the U.S. is “very concerned” about the remaining hostage and that Washington is following the case closely and taking it very seriously.

“It’s an essential obligation for any government to do everything we can to protect our citizens and that’s exactly what President Obama did when he ordered the successful hostage rescue” in Somalia, Burns said.

Rescues entail risk, but Hallums, who was kidnapped by a gang in November 2004, is thankful the U.S. military carries them out.

Without a rescue attempt, the former contractor from Memphis, Tennessee, said: “I was going to be dead for sure.”

Hallums’ captors were demanding $12 million for his release. His Saudi Arabia-based employer _ which provided support services for U.S. troops _ offered $1 million.

Hallums noted that a successful rescue requires the work of many more people than the commandoes who carry out the raid. The FBI, CIA and National Security Agency all work to gather information, data that is then turned over to military intelligence, where an operations officer devises a rescue plan.

“You hear about SEAL Team 6 but behind them there’s hundreds of people working to get information that they can take out and execute the rescue,” Hallums said.

Conducting a rescue involves life-and-death calculations. The teams must assess the risk of the raid, both to the military personnel and the hostages themselves. Is it certain that the hostage is at the location? How many people are on guard? Are they alert 24 hours a day? Are the guards armed and are they likely to shoot at the invading force?

One other important part of the equation: Would the guards shoot and kill the hostage if they knew a rescue was under way? A rescue team arriving in noisy helicopters can doom the hostages they want to rescue. That’s what happened when Colombian army troops, who have a lot of experience in hostage situations, went in to rescue 13 hostages _ including a state governor and a former defense minister _ in 2003 in the jungles of northern Colombia.

The rebels holding the hostages heard the helicopters approaching and began executing the hostages. Just three survived. The rescuers arrived to find bodies scattered all over.

In 2009, an Afghan translator kidnapped alongside a New York Times reporter was killed in a hail of bullets during a rescue attempt by British commandoes. Such deaths underscore the dangers of hostage rescues.

“You don’t want dead SEALs. That has a whole range of military and political ramifications,” said Jones, who has a book called “Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa’ida since 9/11” coming out in May. “You also don’t want dead hostages. Sometimes you get this stuff wrong, since you’re always dealing in probability.”

Jones said he lacks data to know if the number of hostage rescues is rising, but that special operations activities are increasing overall. The military at large is undergoing financial cutbacks, he noted, but the budget for special operations forces is intact.

Technology has improved the chances of success. Aerial drones can monitor guard activity and provide a layout of the location. Watching a pattern of life allows the military to make educated guesses about the chances for success.

But even with that advantage, Evans said no mission is guaranteed success. The Somali captors could have shot and killed the American and Danish hostages during last week’s raid if they had seen the SEALs coming, she said. That’s why most people try to reach a negotiated rescue _ a ransom payment _ instead.

But Hallums said even though hostage rescues are risky, sometimes they have to be done.

“There’s risk, but look at the risk I was in. I was going to be dead for sure _ 100 percent,” Hallums said. “So it’s better odds with them coming in to try and help you out. Because otherwise you have no chance.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

World News

A fisherman watches smoke rise after Russian forces launched a missile attack on a military unit in...
Associated Press

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters hit by drone strike

An explosive device carried by a makeshift drone blew up Sunday at the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet on the Crimean Peninsula.
9 days ago
Medical syringes are seen with 'Monkeypox' sign displayed on a screen in the backgound in this illu...
Associated Press

Monkeypox declared a global emergency by UN health agency

The expanding monkeypox outbreak in more than 70 countries is an “extraordinary” situation that qualifies as a global emergency.
17 days ago
Chinese paramilitary policemen march in front of the Japanese embassy where the Japanese flag is fl...
Associated Press

Japan’s ex-leader Shinzo Abe assassinated during a speech

TOKYO (AP) — Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated Friday on a street in western Japan by a gunman who opened fire on him from behind as he delivered a campaign speech — an attack that stunned a nation with some of the strictest gun control laws anywhere. The 67-year-old Abe, who was Japan’s […]
1 month ago
Firefighters hose down a burning car after a strike hit a residential area, in Kramatorsk, Donetsk ...
Associated Press

Russia taking ‘operational pause’ in Ukraine, analysts say

Analysts say Russia may be taking an "operational pause" in eastern Ukraine to reassemble forces for a significant offensive.
1 month ago
Prime Minister Boris Johnson enters 10 Downing Street, after reading a statement in London, Thursda...
Associated Press

One scandal too many: British PM Boris Johnson resigns

LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation Thursday after droves of top government officials quit over the latest scandal to engulf him, marking an end to three tumultuous years in which he tried to bluster his way through one ethical lapse after another. Months of defiance ended almost with a shrug as […]
1 month ago
Ukrainian servicemen carry the coffin with the remains of Army Col. Oleksander Makhachek during a f...
Associated Press

As Ukraine loses troops, how long can it keep up the fight?

ZHYTOMYR (AP) — As soon as they had finished burying a veteran colonel killed by Russian shelling, the cemetery workers readied the next hole. Inevitably, given how quickly death is felling Ukrainian troops on the front lines, the empty grave won’t stay that way for long. Col. Oleksandr Makhachek left behind a widow, Elena, and […]
2 months ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Sanderson Ford

Don’t let rising fuel prices stop you from traveling Arizona this summer

There's no better time to get out on the open road and see what the beautiful state of Arizona has to offer. But if the cost of gas is putting a cloud over your summer vacation plans, let Sanderson Ford help with their wide-range selection of electric vehicles.
...
Dr. Richard Carmona

Great news: Children under 5 can now get COVID-19 vaccine

After more than two years of battle with an invisible killer, we can now vaccinate the youngest among us against COVID-19. This is great news.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Tips to lower your energy bill in the Arizona heat

Does your summer electric bill make you groan? Are you looking for effective ways to reduce your bill?
AP Enterprise: War experience aids hostage rescues