Only one of more than 40 Americans taken hostage in Iraq between 2004 and 2006 was rescued, despite the presence of more than 120,000 U.S. troops, a robust intelligence network, ownership of the skies and relatively friendly relations with the host nation, says a former Navy SEAL who helped organize rescue efforts.
Overall, only five of 400 international hostages taken during that period were rescued, says Dan O’Shea, a former Navy SEAL now living in Tampa who coordinated the interagency Hostage Working Group at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, working with the military and organizations like the FBI to help find and rescue the hostages.
Fast forward to Syria in the summer of 2014.
There are no U.S. troops on the ground in a chaotic civil war zone where there are many different enemies and the government is unfriendly and able to shoot U.S. intelligence-gathering drones and other aerial assets out of the sky. And any troops and equipment involved in such a mission would have had to be transported from afar, adding another layer of complexity to an already difficult mission.
So when a secret commando raid to rescue journalist James Foley and others came up empty handed, it wasn’t surprising, says O’Shea and other former commandos and military intelligence experts who have planned and taken part in those types of missions and other counter-terror activities.
The Sunni insurgent group Islamic State last Tuesday released a video on YouTube of Foley being beheaded in an undisclosed desert location. The next day, the White House, saying reporters were ready to go with a story about a commando rescue mission, acknowledged a mission took place over the summer to rescue Foley and other Americans held captive by the Islamic State, but that the hostages had been moved before commandos arrived.
Even under the best circumstances, many missions turn out to be “dry holes,” O’Shea and others say, where the target — either a hostage or a high value enemy leader — has since moved on.
And while the mission failed to meet its objective, which would have prevented the Sunni insurgent group from beheading Foley, the commandos largely concur with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In response to a question of whether the inability to find Foley and the others represented an intelligence failure, Dempsey told reporters last week that the mission “was executed flawlessly after a significant period of preparation and planning and rehearsal.”
Knowing that no mission is guaranteed to succeed “is not an automatic show-stopper,” says David Scott, a retired Air Force major general who planned numerous of these types of missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. “There are variables in a very complex targeting process. Sometimes it is worth it just to get additional information that may lead to a higher level of success on other missions.”
The one element of the Foley rescue attempt that was a failure, say the former commandos, was that the details were made public by the White House.
White House officials say that they never wanted to disclose the operation, but were forced to when confronted by media organizations that already had the information and were ready to go with the story.
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One day after the YouTube video was released, White House officials confirmed the rescue mission, saying several dozen commandos, one of whom was wounded, “conducted by a joint force with virtually every service represented...Including ‘special operators and aircraft both rotary and fixed-wing,’ with surveillance aircraft overhead,” unnamed White House officials told a small group of reporters from the Washington Post and other news organizations, according to the Post.
Neither the White House nor Pentagon will specify which units were involved.
Regardless of who took part, those on the mission spent a lot of time and effort training for similar missions and then on practice runs for this one, says Scott Neil, a retired Green Beret master sergeant who participated in scores of such raids in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Those going on missions rely on intelligence analysts to predict the capability of the enemy and amount of likely resistance, says Neil, now director of development for the Green Beret Foundation who lives in Tampa, and was speaking in general terms. Then military planners prepare for the most likely enemy course of action and the most dangerous enemy course of action, he says.
“Any military operation is one-third planning and two-thirds rehearsal,” says Neil. “The uniqueness of this generation of special operators is that we rehearse everything even if we did one the night before. We still take time to rehearse our actions and talk through the sequence of events. Because once the bullets start flying, there is no time to take a knee and ask who is doing what.”
Even on the May 2, 2011, raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the Navy SEALs flying into Pakistan were not 100 percent certain their target would be in the Abbottabad compound where they were headed.
“You don’t know, sitting in the helicopter, coming onto the objective, what you will find,” says Neil.
Neil estimates that of more than 80 raids he participated in between 2001 and 2006, about 10 or 12 were “dry holes.”
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A raid into a situation like that existing in Syria is “pretty complex,” says Scott, who retired in 2009 as deputy director for U.S. Special Operations Command’s Center for Special Operations at MacDill Air Force Base.
“What really complicates the targeting intelligence today is the enemy’s sophistication and understanding of how we work and their deliberate use of what is normal background and terrain,” says Scott, now an Ybor City civic leader and part owner of the Bad Monkey bar, speaking as a private citizen with no direct knowledge of the mission.
Groups like the Islamic State have learned to operate in densely populated areas, adding to the difficultly of both obtaining intelligence and acting on it.
“It’s really hard to distinguish from the clutter and noise the things you are looking for,” says Scott. “There’s no massing of forces at the border, ready to start an offensive operation. This is much more subtle and the intelligence problem a hell of a lot more artful and sophisticated.”
Hostages are “very valuable assets and so any organization or terrorist group holding those assets are going to take very good care of them,” says Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a non-resident senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They put them in well-defended, inaccessible, secret locations purposely to protect those assets.”
The Islamic State and other organizations “have their own operational security as well and have learned as much from us as we have from them over the last 10 years,” says Nelson, a retired Navy aviator who once served as a planner at Joint Special Operations Command as well as stints on the National Security Council and the National Counterterrorism Center.
Adding to the complexity is that unlike the current situation in Afghanistan and in Iraq before the withdrawal in 2011, commandos who went on the Syria raid were more reliant on intelligence gleaned and disseminated further from the battlefield, says Neil.
“Previously, we had these fused information intelligence cells far forward,” he says.
Now, operators have to rely more heavily on information from CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency headquarters, slowing down the speed and currency of intelligence.
“I’m not saying that did or didn’t happen to this raid,” he says. “Even when we had that cell, there were still dry holes.”
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Those contacted for this story expressed universal concern about the leaking of the mission.
“The rules of hostage rescue missions are like Fight Club,” says O’Shea, parroting a line from the 1999 movie. “You don’t talk about them. And certainly not when American hostages are still being held.”
One reason not to talk, says Scott, is that “the terrorist threat learns from our open discussion of how we go about our business. In my view, it is best to deny them any insight.”
Though no one will know for sure what the blowback might be, Scott says it could include having Islamic State go back to the area where the raid took place and start killing local residents, either those who are suspected of collaborating, or just to send a message.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called for a Pentagon investigation into the leak.
“While I believe it was unwise for the White House and Department of Defense to formally acknowledge this operation; it is outrageous that someone would be so selfish and short sighted to leak it to the media,” he said.
The White House and Pentagon say they had to respond to media queries.
“We never intended to disclose this operation,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement last week. “An overriding concern for the safety of the hostages and for operational security made it imperative that we preserve as much secrecy as possible. We only went public today when it was clear a number of media outlets were preparing to report on the operation and that we would have no choice but to acknowledge it.”
Dempsey told reporters that it was his opinion that information released would not be a security risk “as long as sources and methods are not revealed.”
Neil, Scott and Nelson agree with Dempsey that the raid was a success despite not accomplishing the objective, because no U.S. troops were killed, several enemy were and there were items retrieved, according to published reports, that could prove beneficial to intelligence analysts.
“For the nation, it wasn’t a failure,” says Scott. “It was a valiant attempt to do the right thing based on expert judgment, given the best information at the time the decision was made to go. Nothing is guaranteed.”
O’Shea, however, says the bottom line is the result.
“In a hostage rescue mission, success is defined by the rescuing of the hostage, period,” he says. “Everything else is a varying degree of failure. A dry hole is a dry hole, not a mission success.”