The Pentagon’s failed mission to free an American hostage in Yemen suggests that information-sharing opportunities may have been missed, including word of a private effort in South Africa to make a deal for the release of a second captive held along with Luke Somers.
Among the critical details apparently missing from the Pentagon’s calculations when it set the Saturday raid in motion: The South African captive was at the site, and talks underway could have freed him within hours, officials and negotiators said Monday. The mission eventually left both hostages dead.
The parallel plans — a precision military strike and methodical contacts by a private aid group — also show the divergent aims of governments that refuse to pay ransom to militants and private initiatives that look for any channels to help free captives.
The buildup to the raid was, in many ways, a study in contrasting tactics.
The Pentagon was putting the final touches on a Navy SEAL commando mission to free Somers, a photojournalist. In rural South Africa, meanwhile, an aid group had dispatched envoys and money to Yemen in hopes of securing the release of teacher Pierre Korkie after 18 months of tedious negotiations.
American officials, Gaspard said, did not know of any “ongoing negotiations that had any resolution” toward the release of Korkie, a 54-year-old teacher taken hostage by militants in May 2013 along with his wife, who was released in January.
But the aid group that negotiated on behalf of Korkie’s family, Gift of the Givers, said authorities in Yemen were kept informed about the outreach to the al-Qaeda-linked militants holding him.
It remains unclear whether Yemeni officials passed along any details of the talks to their American partners. The Associated Press, however, quoted a senior Yemeni intelligence official as saying that an “exchange of information” about Korkie occurred two weeks ago. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, the AP said.
Gaspard, in an interview on Johannesburg-based 702 Talk Radio, also said it was “not altogether clear” whether the South African government was aware of the talks by Gift of the Givers, a 22-year-old group that concentrates on relief work in Africa.
“We were just completely unaware of those developments and had to act hastily,” the ambassador told the AP.
A U.S. statement also said that it was not previously known that Korkie was held with Somers, a 33-year-old who was born in Britain but spent most of his life in the United States.
“At no time was it apparent that Pierre Korkie was being held in the same space as the American photojournalist Luke Somers,” the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria said in a statement.
Imtiaz Sooliman, director of Gift of the Givers, said the group had kept the South African Embassy in Saudi Arabia informed of the efforts. The embassy also was arranging a passport and travel documents for Korkie as the talks progressed, he said.
A statement on the group’s Web site said a team was in Yemen’s southern port of Aden making “final security and logistical arrangements” to secure Korkie’s release on Sunday.
“All logistical arrangements were in place to safely fly Pierre out of Yemen under diplomatic cover,” the statement continued, “then to meet with family members in a ‘safe’ country, fly to South Africa and directly to hospital for total medical evaluation and appropriate intervention.”
Ali Sayed, a spokesman for the group, also said that a $200,000 “facilitation fee” had been arranged.
Sayed insisted that the money was not a ransom and was intended to cover costs, including transport and payments to tribal leaders who served as middlemen between the group and the militants. He said several of the tribal envoys were killed while attempting to contact the militants over the past 18 months.
“This was not a ransom, which would be considered giving in to the hostage-takers,” Sayed said. “This money was to coordinate what we hoped would be his departure and pay tribal leaders for their liaison role.”
President Obama said he ordered the raid because U.S. authorities thought Somers was in “imminent danger” after an earlier failed mission to free him. Last week, a video released by al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate included threats to kill Somers, who was taken captive in September 2013.
At least 11 other people, including civilians and a local al-Qaeda leader, were killed during the rescue operation, according to the Reuters news service, citing residents in the area.
Somers’s British stepmother, Penny Bearman, criticized the U.S. rescue effort and said Somers would “still be alive” if attempts had been made to negotiate his freedom.
“We are sure Luke would have given support to the ongoing discussions [to secure his release] in Yemen rather than the conflict approach,” she told the Times newspaper.
But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, during a visit to Afghanistan, defended the operation.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of going back and having a review of our process. Our process is about as thorough as there can be. Is it imperfect? Yes. Is there risk? Yes,” Hagel said, according to Reuters.
“But we start with the fact that we have an American that’s being held hostage and that American’s life is in danger, and that’s where we start. And then we proceed from there,” he said.
Deane reported from London.