The identity of one of three American men being held by rebel forces in Yemen was revealed Friday by supporters seeking to call attention to a case that looms as a potential test of President Obama’s efforts to overhaul the U.S. approach to securing the release of overseas hostages.
Scott Darden, 45, an employee of a Louisiana-based logistics company, remains in the custody of Houthi rebels, who seized power this year after overthrowing a government that had been a staunch U.S. counterterrorism ally. Darden is believed to be held in Sanaa, the country’s capital, along with two other Americans.
Their detention is the latest in a series of hostage cases that have exposed problems in how the U.S. government intervenes in such situations and advises families. The capture of the three Americans also underscores the collapse of American influence in a country that Obama had previously described as a model ally in the fight against extremist groups.
Diana Loesch, Darden’s wife, said she and the couple’s young son, Eesa, are “eagerly awaiting his arrival to come home.”
“We are asking for his safe return,” she said. “He loved the Yemeni people.”
Loesch had previously sought to keep details about Darden’s detention out of the media, at the urging of the U.S. government. But on Friday, Darden’s best friend went public with his plight, creating a Facebook page calling for his release. Hundreds of people, including family members and friends, have expressed their support since the page appeared.
“I am frustrated by the absence of any tangible progress,” John Schlichter said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “Americans deserve to know that their fellow citizen, a good-hearted man earning an honest living abroad, was taken prisoner in a conflict that has nothing to do with him.”
Darden is originally from Atlanta, but his family was living in Dubai at the time he was taken.
U.S. officials familiar with Darden’s case said he was detained with another American, a 54-year-old man from Michigan. Officials said Darden had sought help from the American when a Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen to dislodge the Houthis.
A third American, a 35-year-old convert to Islam who was in Yemen teaching English, also is believed still to be in the custody of the Houthis, according to U.S. officials.
Efforts to reach the families of those two men were unsuccessful.
All three are believed to be held by Houthi militants who are part of a minority group in northern Yemen that overran the capital last year, ousting President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi — a staunch U.S. ally who had allowed the CIA and the U.S. military to operate armed drones in the country against al-Qaeda.
A fourth U.S. citizen, Sharif Mobley, also remains in Houthi custody. He was arrested in Sanaa on terrorism charges more than five years ago by the previous government.
The CIA, State Department and U.S. military were forced to pull personnel out of Yemen this year as Houthi forces seized control of the country’s military installations, undermining a U.S. counterterrorism campaign against an al-Qaeda affiliate that has mounted a series of plots against the United States.
Despite setbacks that U.S. officials describe as severe, the CIA and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command have continued to carry out drone strikes, including one in June that killed Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The detention of the three Americans has coincided with an effort by the Obama administration to overhaul policies for handling hostage situations. Those policies have drawn wide criticism as ineffective and insensitive to captives’ relatives.
The White House announced in June that the government would stop telling families of hostages that they could face criminal prosecution if they paid ransom for the release of relatives. The threats had angered relatives of U.S. citizens who were held and later executed by the Islamic State in Syria.
“The last thing we should ever do is add to a family’s pain with threats like that,” Obama said in announcing the policy shift.
Instead, the administration issued an executive order requiring the government to work more closely with families.
Obama called for the creation of a “fusion cell” involving the FBI, State Department and Pentagon to coordinate responses in hostage cases.
Another American, journalist, Casey Coombs, had also been held by the Houthis but was freed in early June with the help of the government of Oman, which has served as an intermediary between the United States and Houthi rebels.
U.S. efforts to secure the release of the three Americans have been handled by a hostage recovery fusion team led by the FBI. The agency declined to comment.
The attempts have been complicated by the deteriorating security situation in a country that is now a battle zone in a proxy conflict involving Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Saudi military has carried out an extensive bombing campaign and has supported militias that have worked to drive Houthi rebels out of the southern port city of Aden. The effort involves hundreds of Yemeni fighters secretly trained in Saudi Arabia.
Yemen also has been caught in an increasingly intense competition between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State for primacy in jihadist terrorism. There also has been a surge in the number of terror attacks. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings of a mosque in a Houthi area of the capital this week that reportedly killed at least 28 people.
Darden was involved in overseeing the transport of humanitarian supplies in Yemen for New Orleans-based Transoceanic Development. Darden, who speaks Arabic fluently, has worked for Transoceanic for less than a year.
“We have been working tirelessly since March with governments and other organizations globally to secure the release of Scott Darden, who was in Yemen coordinating the warehousing and delivery of humanitarian aid as part of his job in international logistics,” said Ken Luce, a spokesman for the company. “We continue to call on the Houthis to immediately release Scott so that he can be reunited with his family.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.