NAIROBI, Kenya – Roy Hallums was enduring his 311th day of captivity, blindfolded, his hands and feet bound, stuffed into a hole under the floor of a farm building outside Baghdad. He heard a commotion upstairs and managed to get the blindfold off. Delta Force troops broke open the hatch. An American soldier jumped down.
“He looks at me and points and says, ‘Are you Roy?’ I say ‘yes,’ and he yells back up the stairs: ‘Jackpot!’ ” Hallums recalled in a phone interview six years after his rescue.
Another mission by elite U.S. troops took place just last week, this time in Somalia, resulting in an American and a Danish hostage being rescued and nine kidnappers killed.
U.S. special forces units are compiling a string of successful hostage rescues, thanks to improved technology and a decade of wartime experience. But despite technological advances like thermal imaging and surveillance drones, the raids remain high-risk. Success or failure can depend on a snap decision made by a rescuer with bullets flying all around, or determination by kidnappers to kill any captives before they can be freed.
In 2010, the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6 tried to rescue Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker, from her Taliban captors in Afghanistan. She was killed by a grenade thrown in haste by one of the American commandoes.
The kidnappings of foreigners living or traveling overseas continues unabated, as it has for decades. While the probability of a person being kidnapped is low, abductions do occur regularly, especially in high-risk nations like Somalia, Pakistan, Mexico and Colombia.
Just last Tuesday, armed tribesmen in Yemen kidnapped six United Nations workers: an Iraqi, a Palestinian, a Colombian, a German and two Yemenis. On Jan. 20, kidnappers grabbed an American and held him for a week before releasing him, perhaps after a ransom was paid.
U.S. troops have been tasked with rescues mostly in areas where American forces were already stationed, like Afghanistan, Iraq and around Somalia, said Taryn Evans, an expert on kidnappings at AKE, a risk mitigation company outside London. As they’ve gotten more experienced, they’ve gotten better.
In 2009, SEAL sharpshooters killed three Somali pirates holding the American captain of the Maersk Alabama hostage in a lifeboat. And late last month, U.S. Navy SEALs parachuted into Somalia under cover of night, then moved on foot to where captors were holding an American woman and a Danish man who had been kidnapped together in October. The SEALs killed nine captors and rescued the two hostages while suffering no casualties themselves in the Jan. 25 operation.
Their skill in carrying out such missions has been honed by America’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Seth Jones, a civilian adviser to the commanding general of the U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011.
“They have conducted so many operations in these areas, from hostage rescues to strike operations to capture-kill missions. What it does is significantly improves the competence of special operations,” Jones said. He said commando missions are “now routine.”
Though Navy SEAL Team 6 rescued the American and the Dane, one American kidnapped in January in Somalia remains behind.
Conducting a rescue involves life-and-death calculations. The teams must assess the risk of the raid, both to the military personnel and the hostages themselves. Is it certain that the hostage is at the location? How many people are on guard? Are they alert 24 hours a day? Are the guards armed and are they likely to shoot at the invading force?
One other important part of the equation: Would the guards shoot and kill the hostage if they knew a rescue was under way? A rescue team arriving in noisy helicopters can doom the hostages they want to rescue. That’s what happened when Colombian army troops, who have a lot of experience in hostage situations, went in to rescue 13 hostages – including a state governor and a former defense minister – in 2003 in the jungles of northern Colombia.
The rebels holding the hostages heard the helicopters approaching and began executing the hostages. Just three survived. The rescuers arrived to find bodies scattered all over.
In 2009, an Afghan translator kidnapped alongside a New York Times reporter was killed in a hail of bullets during a rescue attempt by British commandoes. Such deaths underscore the dangers of hostage rescues.
“You don’t want dead SEALs. That has a whole range of military and political ramifications,” said Jones, who has a book called “Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa’ida since 9/11” coming out in May. “You also don’t want dead hostages. Sometimes you get this stuff wrong, since you’re always dealing in probability.”
Jones said he lacks data to know if the number of hostage rescues is rising, but that special operations activities are increasing overall. The military at large is undergoing financial cutbacks, he noted, but the budget for special operations forces is intact.
Technology has improved the chances of success. Aerial drones can monitor guard activity and provide a layout of the location. Watching a pattern of life allows the military to make educated guesses about the chances for success.
But even with that advantage, Evans said no mission is guaranteed success. That’s why most people try to reach a negotiated rescue – a ransom payment – instead.
Hallums’ captors were demanding $12 million for his release. His Saudi Arabia-based employer – which provided support services for U.S. troops – offered $1 million.
Hallums said even though hostage rescues are risky, sometimes they have to be done.
“There’s risk, but look at the risk I was in. I was going to be dead for sure – 100 percent,” Hallums said. “So it’s better odds with them coming in to try and help you out. Because otherwise you have no chance.”