Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hostage Rescue Scenarios

We will fight hostage taking 
like we fight terrorism 
--Ali Abdullah Saleh, 
former Yemen statesman 
Hostage rescue situations are among the most fraught police and military scenarios. It is instructive to look at the recent SEAL raid in Yemen, in which neither hostage was retrieved alive, and the Australian hostage scenario, which resulted in two hostage deaths; the scenarios share a few similarities and many differences.

First, Yemen:

In the military hostage rescue operations are usually phased, the most difficult military efforts. The death of the hostage is always a probability.

In military terms, these are raids with a hostage retrieval. The raid is usually in a denied area, requiring an approach or movement to contact followed by an assault phase in which it is usual to kill all enemy except for prisoners, which may provide intel about future enemy intentions. The objective is usually isolated, and approach marches, difficult. Assaulting the objective is difficult not in a military sense, but in the attempt to preserve the life of the hostage.

In warfare, you can kill everyone on the objective if they are combative. They do not need to be armed since warfare does not require rules of engagement. Warfare is a state of belligerency, unlike in civilian law enforcement. A soldier's mission is to sweep the objective and leave it as soon as hostages are secured.

Since SEALs operate in secret there are few details for the Yemeni raid, but these comments are based upon historical context:

1) Hostage rescue is a host nation function, therefore, why didn't the Yemenis conduct the raid?  Does the United States have a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with Yemen?

2) Did the US SOF employ agents to approach the hostage-taker's compound? Was this a go-it-alone venture? If so, why are our allies not hands-on in their own country?

3) Why is the U.S. in Yemen in the first place? Why are Western civilians allowed in a high-threat area? Does the U.S. want potential hostages running around the AO willy-nilly?

4) Why doesn't the Department of State declare Yemen, Iraq and all other high-threat areas off-limits to U.S. citizens? If we are banned from travel to Cuba and North Korea, then why not from areas of flat-out craziness? It is no secret that Westerners are desirable targets.

5) If the U.S. is in Yemen to secure Saudi Arabia's flank, then why can't Saudi Special Forces be employed in the hostage rescue efforts? Saudi assets could penetrate Yemen territory more easily than can U.S. SEAL teams.

6) Is Yemen really a country, or a lawless sand pit? If Yemen cannot ensure the safety of foreigners, can we say they are a nation?

7) Are the Yemen hostage-takers proponents of Saudi Wahhabi beliefs?

8) Why are all of the recent raids and hostage rescues being conducted by SEALs? Why are Special Forces no longer being employed -- aren't SF teams part of General Joseph Votel's SOCOM? When did SOCOM become a one ring circus?

Why are the SF not being rotated on the hazardous duty roster? SF has institutional Infantry combat knowledge beyond the capability of SEAL teams.

Next: we will look at the civilian hostage rescue or barricade situation in Sydney, Australia, the so-called "lone-wolf" scenario which may become the face of recurring hostage situations in this century.

[cross-posted @ rangeragainstwar.hostage barricade, hostage negotiations, hostage rescue, hostage scenarios, Islamic violence, lone wolf hostage takers, SEAL raids]


  1. "Why doesn't the Department of State declare Yemen, Iraq and all other high-threat areas off-limits to U.S. citizens? If we are banned from travel to Cuba and North Korea (...)"

    No, no, no.
    USAmericans are allowed to travel to Cuba and North Korea - there are merely no direct routes of travel (no direct flights). http://havana.usint.gov/travelling_cuba.html
    Restrictions to the freedom of travel of an adult citizen not suspected of major crimes, sentenced to prison or in severe debt are a no-go. That's Warsaw Pact or NK behaviour, not free Western civilization-style.

    We (not only the USA, also other Western countries) should declare a "no responsibility to help you if you get into trouble in this or that severe travel warning area" policy, though. Warn them, and if they don't heed the warning, leave them to their fate. No privatized thrills with socialised risks.

  2. jim-

    Perhaps SOCOM has delegated specific missions to specific components, rather than trying to make all SOF units "jack of all trades, master of none"? After all, it's not a contest, is it?

    Sven- I fully agree on limits to a nation's responsibilities for its citizens' follies. But then, if that's what the bulk of the citizenry wants, a reasonably democratic nation must reflect the desires of its citizenry. Nothing says that the results of democracy must be enlightened, effective or productive.

    1. Hostage situations qualify for daily news, daily news are essentially entertainment using a veil of being informative. One could consider the expenses of saving a hostage as an efficient entertainment expense, but this is about human lives. That's should be the definitive frontier for entertainment in our civilization.

    2. Excellent insight, S-O.

      As Paddy Chayevsky depicted in his far-sighted screenplay, Network, this shall all gain press in proximity to its "point value"; it's a film worth re-visiting. The news anchor character Howard Beale might have been the "Mad Prophet" of the apocalypse, but it sure looks a lot like the evening news ca. 2014 to me. I'd call it the "Death Hour", plus a final cat or puppy segment, or some poor schmuck who schleps Starbucks to inmates of an old folks home on his own dime, just to give us a glimmer of hope for humanity:

      ~"We could make a series of it. "Suicide of the Week."

      ~"Aw, hell, why limit ourselves? "Execution of the Week."

      ~"Terrorist of the Week."

      ~I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: "The Death Hour." A great Sunday night show for the whole family. It'd wipe that fuckin' Disney right off the air.

      --fr. Network (1982)

  3. In answer to your questions, Jim...

    1. Yemen is effectively in civil war. There probably is no "host nation" military force worth speaking of.

    2. Dunno

    3. Why do you think? For one thing, one of the Sunni Yemeni groups fighting the Houthi tribal forces that currently occupy the capital Sana'a has opened an Al Qaeda franchise (Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula) and you know how that makes D.C. heads explode.

    4. Do you really want the US to arrest people for getting on an aircraft to Lagos, or Jiddah? I'm w Al here; that's neither practical nor desirable. Just make it public knowledge that if you get in trouble in Syria or Libya you're on your own
    5. See #1 above; the Saudis are on the outs w the Houthi rulers in Sana'a. In this case the chances of a Saudi military incursion would be even more fraught than a US one.

    1. "There probably is no "host nation" military force worth speaking of."

      Their capabilities are probably very limited, 90% tied up with not being killed/keeping some sort of lid on.

      Their ability to conduct what you've pointed out is a very difficult task might be zero.

      In addition, those forces are likely riddled with informants; tactical surprise would be hard to get or maintain.

  4. As for your #6...I doubt if anyone knows, or cares. Much as I don't think the guy is all that, Cole has a pretty good summary of Yemeni affairs in 2014 over at his site, and the point he makes is that the present civil war in Yemen has blurred the lines between tribal, sectarian, and criminal skulduggery.

  5. Sorry...meant #7 for the above.

    But in answer to your #6, see #1; Yemen is having a civil war. Yemen is also a tribal place with a weak tradition of the "rule of law". Outsiders - that is, people with no local tribal connection and little understanding of the complexities of the local clan, religious, social, and criminal elements - are at risk. By that definition, yes, Yemen is not a place I'd go looking for work. I would only note that by that definition Scotland pre-1745 or several parts of rural Arkansas would also meet the standard of "lawless sand-pit"...

  6. Oh, and one last thing...

    The guy you quote at the top? He's the joker whose dictatorship started this whole fuckstory. Calling him a "former Yemeni statesman" is kind of like calling Fulgencio Batista a "former anti-Castro resistance fighter". Just say in'...

    1. That's Lisa's dark humor for you ;) I reach for the most absurd/ironic lede quotation I can find.

      (Surely you know me by now?!?)

  7. Well guys, 1st HNy.
    my point boiled down is that if this place is not a country , and if it's a civil war, then why don't we hat up and get the hell outta there.?
    what business do we have in other folks civil wars?
    don't we have enuf problems here in the home land ?
    please correct me if i'm wrong, but did we let civilians roam around the ww1 and ww2 battlefields?

  8. I agree with S-O: there should be State travel warnings, and an assumption of personal liability (much as we've spoken of doing for adventurers who violate weather warnings in the U.S. and end up requiring herculean and costly rescues for their indiscretion.)

    I also agree with his observation re. the entertainment cost (see comment above).

  9. Lisa: You win this one, then. Quoting Saleh on the rule of law is kinda like quoting Lizzie Borden on orphanage; it's a black-on-black sort of humor...

    Jim: You know why this stuff is going on as well as I do. "Great Power" politics, hangovers from Cold War antiCommunism and post-colonial power-vacuum finagling, the penumbra from 60+ years of a "Middle East policy" that is contingent on having Israel's back and propping up friendly dictators whereever possible...to expect the U.S. to suddenly start acting with cold, clearheaded logic assumes that the U.S. has EVER acted with cold clearheaded logic. I guess that I'd be more arsed if I thought that anyone really gave a rat's ass. But the U.S. Congress just whistled past a public exposure of war crimes while voting to give Wall Street the chance to shoot craps with the public purse again - something that I'd consider vastly more damaging to We the People's self-government than this example of the usual idiot "foreign policy" shenangains - and it looks like that We the People could give a rat's ass about THAT.

    We're getting the government, and the foreign policy, that we deserve.

    I'd add that for all that the U.S. has been doing this shit in the Middle East since 1945 it has a longstanding tradition of farkling about in the less-paved portions of the world using its citizens' distress (or purported distress...or purported citizens...) as an excuse since TR bloviated that he wanted Perdicaris alive or Rasuli dead...

    I'm not in favor of it, since (as Lord Chesterfield is said to have cautioned about keeping a mistress) the pleasure is transient, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable. But...on the "big picture" scale of things this entire adventure probably cost 1/54th what Congress spent "investigating Benghazi" and all that was risked was "some guys who would have been training to do this anyway" and, of course, the dead guys.

    It always sucks to be the dead guys.

    1. Thank you for seeing the darkness in my choice.

      I also like your analogy to Lord Chesterfield's thoughts on the other matter ;)

  10. Jim -

    Re your question #*: I am assuming that the Navy's DEVGRU were used instead of Delta because the mission was launched off of a ship (USS Makin Island that was already in the Arabian Sea). And since there were only a few days to act prior to the threat of Somers execution it had to be done on extremely short notice. Perhaps Delta or other Army SF could have launched the mission out of Djibouti or other land bases, but there was always the danger of tipoffs by locals, Same would apply to a Saudi Op.

    Re your question #1: American special forces and US-trained Yemeni counter-terrorism troops did participate in a joint op on November 25 to rescue six Yemenis, one Saudi, and one Ethiopian hostages held by alQuaeda. See NYTimes article:
    They had hoped to also free Somers but apparently he was held elsewhere. As for a SOFA with Yemen, there is not one publicly acknowledged, But there could be a classified one in place. We have SOFA's with several countries that are not publicly disclosed - this is at the wish of the other country, not the US.

    1. In addition, from what I've heard the Special Forces Command really, really screwed the poch in Iraq by using SF as raiding/commando forces. That's a SEAL/Ranger/Delta Force job. SF should be used when interaction with the local is critical (I'd expect them to be running the back-up/facilitation support).

  11. As US citizens living abroad, we regularly get email travel warnings from the State Dept via the local embassy. Of course, they always tell us that the local US Embassy or consulate is the place to holler for help if we are victimized or in danger.

    Sven and Lisa hit the nail on the head. The 24 hour news cycle, coupled with our elected officials or wannabes constantly being in the vote pandering mode contributes greatly to the problem. Since we effectively are in a constant process of "changing governments" in the US with the Congress up for grabs every two years, headlines drive policy to a pathological degree. Our system does not foster long term, sound thought.

    1. Spot-on: "Our system does not foster long term, sound thought."

      Not only our system but our modes of commo today, too. Fast, not good, is the standard. Monthly journals are now antiquated, superannuated by our instantaneous news feeds.

      We're living in Joseph O'Neill's "abracadabrapolis" (fr. "The Dog"), or George W. S. Trow's "Within the Context of No Context".

    2. Won't disagree about the toxicity of the electronic "news". Not sure it was a real factor in this care, tho; I don't recall hearing anything about these guys until AFTER the failed mission...

  12. Chief - while this case may not have been public knowledge before the fact, I seriously suspect that the potential for it to become "newsworthy" had an impact on decision making.