Last month, the Iranian regime celebrated the 35th anniversary of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which was followed by an abortive American rescue attempt that helped sink Jimmy Carter’s presidency. This past weekend, President Obama ordered special operations forces to rescue American journalist Luke Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie, based on reports that the captors were preparing to kill the two men. Regrettably, the guards inflicted mortal wounds on the two men before the rescue force team could whisk them away.
It would be tempting to see the weekend’s operation as the latest in a long series of failed hostage-rescue operations, dating back to Eagle Claw and even earlier. Only last month, a raid to rescue Somers had failed to locate him, and this past July, a raid by special operations forces in Syria failed to find intended target James Foley, who was subsequently beheaded. In October 2010, U.S. special operations forces inadvertently killed Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove during a botched rescue operation. Looking back before the Iran Hostage Crisis, one finds the Son Tay Raid in 1970, which raided a prison camp that turned out to be empty, and a plethora of even more futile efforts to rescue hostages from Vietnamese captivity. In World War II, Task Force Baum failed miserably in its efforts to liberate POWs behind German lines.
The United States, however, can also point to some noteworthy successes in hostage rescue operations. In January 1945, a raid by U.S. Army Rangers liberated more than 500 prisoners at Cabanatuan in the Philippines. The successes have multiplied in the twenty-first century. American forces rescued Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003, Richard Phillips on the Gulf of Aden in 2009, Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted in Somalia in January 2012, and Dr. Dilip Joseph in Afghanistan later in that year.
Several dramatic improvements have helped account for the increase in the success rate. The creation of Special Operations Command in 1987 eliminated the problems of coordination among the services that had led to the failure of Eagle Claw. Advances in information technology have made it much easier to locate hostages and identify the protective measures employed by their guards.
Despite these improvements, the success or failure of individual operations continues to depend heavily on chance and the decisions of individual captors and rescuers, factors that are all but impossible to forecast with certainty. As the most recent failure demonstrated, even the world’s best hostage-rescue forces are not guaranteed to achieve total surprise. If surprise is not total, then guards can kill the hostages if they so choose, as just occurred in Yemen.
Given that hostage-rescue operations will always be fraught with grave risks, one must then ask what can be done to reduce the need for the operations in the first place. One option is to pay ransom for prisoners, an option that has been popular of late with many European nations. Most European governments, with the notable exception of the British government, as well as numerous private corporations and non-profit organizations, have been willing to pay seven-figure ransoms to terrorist organizations and other criminal enterprises. While such actions may seem justifiable on a case-by-case basis, they have led to a spike in hostage-taking, with terrorist organizations being one of the main beneficiaries. Consequently, the attractiveness of that option is likely to decline further over time.
Another option is to keep people out of areas wherever there is a risk of kidnapping. But such a policy makes it all but impossible to influence events in other countries. Diplomats, aid workers, and missionaries cannot achieve any results if they are kept from walking the streets of foreign countries.
A better, albeit riskier, option is to help foreign governments improve the security on their territory. Kidnapping levels correspond closely with the strength of internal security forces. Colombia provides a good model; the security improvements in the late 1990s, which were abetted by U.S. assistance, led to a sharp drop in kidnapping as well as other criminal activities.
In Colombia, it should be noted, security was improved through broad improvements in the Colombian security forces, rather than through the development of a few elite units. The Yemen tragedy serves as a reminder that U.S. assistance to that country has been too narrow to achieve security across the country. Today, most of Yemen’s territory lies entirely outside the control of the central government. Until that situation is altered, Yemen will remain an extremely dangerous place for Westerners of any type.