The Failure of American Hostage Rescues

The unsuccessful raid to free Luke Somers garnered rare bipartisan support and renewed the spotlight on America's controversial captive policy.

The Monday morning discourse on this weekend's failed operation to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers started with some eerie news.

As The New York Times reported, Pierre Korkie, a South African citizen who was also being held by al-Qaeda, was apparently moments away from being released when a unit of Navy SEAL Team 6 commandos sprung into action to save Somers. Both Korkie and Somers were fatally shot by their captors before they could be rescued.

Here, the first thread of a complicated jumble of policy, tragedy, and political positioning comes into focus. While South Africa, like the United States, refuses to pay ransoms for hostages, its government was said to have helped a South African charity working for Korkie's release, securing him a new passport along the way.

That the kidnappers released Korkie's wife earlier this year and that a heavily negotiated deal was struck between the charity and the terrorists holding Korkie sheds some light on how a rigid government policy can be sidestepped.

The rationale for the American policy, which is shared by the United Kingdom and South Africa, is simple. Over time, ransom payments made to terrorist groups for kidnappings provided organizations like al-Qaeda and (more recently) ISIS with millions of dollars. According to the Treasury Department, al-Qaeda netted $165 million in paid ransoms alone since 2008. Other estimates place that figure closer to $125 million.

In addition to money, the ransoms also provide an incentive to carry out more kidnappings. This is why the rescue missions frequently find broad support among politicians.

In a surprising turn, Saturday's mission, despite its outcome, was roundly praised by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. On CNN's State of the Union, House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers, a Republican, offered that despite the "unfortunate outcome," he believes "you have to make these kinds of decisions." Rogers's sentiments were echoed by Democrats on the same committee and elsewhere.

In fact, the raid also appeared to briefly upend the characteristic posturing of some media outlets. Consider this small, but telling observation from Mark Thompson:

The Internet lit up Sunday with debate over the merits of the mission. “Sharp contrast: @cnn calls Yemen op ‘failed msn’ repeatedly; @foxandfriends calls op ‘rescue attempt’ & praises it,” tweeted Phil Carter, an Army veteran of Iraq who is now at the Center for a New American Security.

The failure to save Somers introduced a new concern—the failure of similar rescue operations recently. As Reuters noted, Saturday's raid "was the third failed rescue attempt of an American hostage in five months." A prior attempt to save Somers failed when it turned out that he had been moved by his captors. More infamously, efforts to save American journalist James Foley failed in July, and he was ultimately beheaded.

In the wake of Somers's death, outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters in Afghanistan that the United States will not be reviewing its hostage policy. He also defended the raids:

Is it imperfect? Yes. Is there risk? Yes. But we start with the fact that we have an American that's being held hostage, and that American's life is in danger. That's where we start, and then we proceed from there.