The mission is “yet another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday morning.
Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Hagen Thisted, 60, employees of a Danish aid agency, had been held for three months by armed men near the town of Adado in north-central Somalia.
About a dozen SEALs parachuted from an Air Force Special Operations plane to a spot two miles from the compound where the hostages were being held, Pentagon officials said. The commandos walked through the darkness and surprised the captors, killing at least eight of them before Buchanan and Thisted were taken away in helicopters, officials said.
News of the rescue reached Obama on Tuesday evening Washington time, just before he headed to the Capitol to deliver his State of the Union address. Unknowing listeners heard him say “Good job tonight” to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta as he passed through the chamber on his way to the podium.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide details beyond Obama’s public statement, said that although the mission had been under consideration for weeks, the president decided Monday to proceed based on three factors.
The first, the official said, was “a window of opportunity,” along with intelligence indications that the captives might be moved. “You don’t know if you’re going to have another chance,” the official said.
Much of Somalia, where the al-Shabab militant group is said to be allied with al-Qaeda, is kept under close U.S. surveillance, with intelligence gathered overhead and on the ground. U.S. officials said there was no evidence that the hostage-takers had any connection to the militants.
The second factor was a lack of progress in “other means” being undertaken to secure their release, the official said. Hostage-taking, whether by pirates at sea or by land-based criminal gangs, is an increasingly lucrative enterprise in lawless Somalia.
Many captives have been set free after their families or companies paid ransom. Buchanan’s captors had initially demanded about $10 million for the hostages and recently refused an offer of more than $1 million.
The third and perhaps deciding factor in the rescue operation was Buchanan’s “deteriorating health,” the official said. The Somalia Report news agency reported in November that the captors had brought in a physician to examine Buchanan for a kidney ailment. U.S. officials, who cited privacy concerns in declining to discuss her condition, did not dispute that report.