President Obama said yesterday he authorized the failed rescue attempt of American photojournalist Luke Somers in Yemen because the U.S. had information that his life was in imminent danger, a difficult decision that military experts say was the right call.
“When there is an American at risk, particularly when you have a deadline, our (special operations forces) are willing to do whatever it takes to go ahead with these kind of missions,” said Steve Bucci, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy. “When these guys say we’re going to kill the hostage, they’re not just bluffing … We know they’re going to kill them and that they’re going to do it horrifically. You hope and pray and practice so that something like this never happens, but sometimes it does.”
Authorities say Somers, who was kidnapped in September 2013, and a South African teacher, Pierre Korkie, were being held by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants. They died in the rescue operation that Obama said was conducted by U.S. forces in partnership with Yemen’s government.
A South African aid group, Gift of the Givers, said Korkie was a day from freedom after a deal that included a “facilitation fee” to the kidnappers.
The president said he “strongly condemns the barbaric murder of Luke Somers at the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists” and reaffirmed that the U.S. “will spare no effort to use all its military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring Americans home safely, wherever they are located.”
Obama pointed to the captors’ video threatening to kill Somers within 72 hours, saying “other information also indicated that Luke’s life was in imminent danger.”
“Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt yesterday,” Obama said in a statement.
Former Clinton administration official Elaine Kamarck, a scholar at the Brookings Institution on leave from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said she agreed with the decision to attempt the rescue.
“That’s the hardest decision a president can make,” she said. “If you’ve got a high degree of certainty that he will be killed shortly and you know where he is — then absolutely you should try because sometimes you can save them, and we have saved people in the past.”
A U.S. raid was launched last month to rescue Somers but he was not at the site, authorities said.
Herald wire services contributed to this report.