Hostage Rescue Operations: Not So Simple

Posted on September 19, 2014


Obama’s detractors would have us all think that one need only snap one’s fingers and tell the military to just go rescue the hostages, and it’ll be done. In reality, hostage rescues are notoriously difficult and dangerous, and often get the hostages killed.


I haven’t seen this complaint from any credible news organization, but in the wake of the Islamic State beheading US and British journalists, I have heard the question blathered about on the radio: golly, why didn’t Obama just go in there and rescue the hostages, rather than let them be killed?

What an ignorant bunch there is out there on the airwaves. Sorry, I just can’t let this one slide.

Point One: the Obama administration tried earlier this summer, but when the rescue team landed in Syria, they discovered – while under fire and at great risk to themselves – that the hostages had been moved. As John Walcott and Lisa Lerer report for Bloomberg, SecDef Hagel told reporters that it was “a flawless operation, but the hostages were not there.”

Which brings us to Point Two: before you criticize the outcome of that operation, wrap your head around this: even with perfect information (and no intelligence is ever perfect), hostage rescues are notoriously difficult and dangerous, to the hostages as well as to the would-be rescuers.

Anyone remember Operation Eagle Claw, the 1980 attempt to rescue our 52 hostages from Tehran? That resulted in eight dead American men, and left destroyed and abandoned US aircraft – along with a trove of classified stuff – at the Desert One base deep in Iranian territory. The Iranians got quite the victory out of that with basically zero effort on their part, and the hostages stayed firmly put until Iran decided to release them as Ronald Reagan was striding down the red carpet to take his inaugural oath of office.

For every perfect operation like Colombia’s bloodless 2008 operation which freed 15 hostages (including three Americans) held by FARC rebels, there are scores more which don’t go so smoothly. Here are some examples that didn’t work out so well:

– 2013, Denis Allex, held for more than three years by Al-Shabaab in Somalia, killed during or after a failed French rescue attempt in which two French commandos died.

– 2013, some 30 or more hostages from a multinational group of oil workers at the Ain Amenas gas plant, seized by Al-Qaeda militants, are killed during an Algerian rescue operation.

– 2012, Christopher McManus and Franco Lamolinara, held for 10 months in Nigeria by an Al-Qaeda group, killed during a British rescue attempt.

– 2011, four US hostages aboard a yacht commandeered by Somali pirates, are killed during a US rescue attempt.

– 2010, British aid worker Linda Norgrove, held by the Taliban in Afghanistan, is killed during a US Special Forces rescue mission.

– 2004, over 1100 people – mostly children – are held for three days by Chechen and Ingush terrorists in a Russian school. 334 hostages, including 186 children, are killed just before and during a Russian rescue operation.

There’s way more than that, from all over the world, but you get the idea.

Even highly successful hostage-rescue operations, like the dramatic Israeli raid on Entebbe, Uganda in 1976, can get hostages killed and can have far-reaching, disastrous repercussions for others. While the Entebbe operation has been called “the greatest hostage rescue in history” – and indeed, over 100 hostages were saved – it is worth remembering that the Israeli commander was killed during the assault, and at least five other commandos wounded. The hostages also did not escape unscathed: four were killed and seven injured, and the pro-Palestinian Ugandan government – which had been involved in the hijacking – later massacred hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda as retaliation for Kenyan government assistance to the Israeli raid. All in all, a steep price to pay in trading lives for lives.

So, for all the armchair pundits out there, the ones with zero military experience, the big talkers who I sort of doubt can find Syria or Iraq on a map – get your facts straight before accusing the administration of making no attempt to rescue the IS hostages, and learn a thing or two about reality before making your blithe and cavalier recommendations from the safety of your sofa.

Some of the US wreckage left behind at "Desert One" in Iran, 1980.

Some of the US wreckage left behind at “Desert One” in Iran, 1980.