Hostage Rescue Requires Perfection, Commandos Say
By Howard Altman
Tampa Tribune, Fla.
Published: December 7, 2014
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Failed Yemen raid highlights difficulty of military rescue operations
U.S. Navy SEALs walked nearly seven miles from their landing zone in southern Yemen and were within 300 feet of the al-Qaida compound where American Luke Somers was being held when they suddenly came under fire, U.S. officials said.
American journalist, South African teacher slain in US rescue attempt
An American photojournalist and a South African teacher were killed Saturday during a high-risk, U.S.-led raid to free them from al-Qaida militants in Yemen, a turbulent Arab country that is a centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region.
American killed in Yemen had ‘wanderlust’
Luke Somers, an American who was killed during a rescue attempt against his al-Qaida captors in Yemen, had been working as a freelance photographer and editor in that country, and those who knew him say he had “wanderlust” and was drawn to new experiences.
Pentagon confirms failed rescue mission in Yemen for hostage Luke Somers
The Pentagon says a hostage rescue mission last month in Yemen failed to liberate American Luke Somers because he was not present at the targeted location.
Rescuing hostages is the most difficult of all special operations. It requires relative superiority to be almost simultaneous with mission completion – for any delay between relative superiority and mission completion provides the enemy an opportunity to kill the hostages – an action that takes only seconds. Consequently, if possible, surprise must be maintained up to the point of entry.
– Cmdr. William McRaven, on the July 3-4, 1976 Israeli hostage rescue at Entebbe, from The Theory of Special Operations, his 1993 thesis for the Naval Post Graduate School.
As he sat in the C-130 Hercules transport plane enroute to a small airport near the middle of Africa, Sasson “Sassy” Reuven, a member of Israel’s Red Beret paratroop unit, knew that failure was not an option.
Just six days earlier, Air France Flight 139 with more than 300 passengers and crew was hijacked on the way from Athens to Paris by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two members of the German Baader-Meihof Gang. The hijackers ultimately landed in Uganda and let off all the non-Jewish passengers and crew, leaving 106 men, women and children held hostage in the old terminal of Entebbe airport.
It was a seven-hour flight from Israel to Uganda, covering 2,500 miles. There was plenty of time, in an almost windowless plane carrying mission commander Lt. Col Yoni Netanyahu, about seven dozen commandos and paratroopers and a replica of Ugandan leader Idi Amin’s Mercedes, to ponder what would happen when the plane landed.
“I was thinking about the fact that we were going to save some Jews and give the world a sign that we’re not going to give up any Jews trapped anywhere to be killed or threatened to be killed because they are Jewish,” says Reuven, in a telephone interview ahead of his appearance tonight at the Holiday Inn Express in Clearwater.
Though it’s been nearly 40 years since the Israeli raid on Entebbe, the issue of hostage rescue attempts by commandos is big news of late. In the past two weeks, U.S. commandos twice tried to rescue hostages in Yemen. Both attempts were unsuccessful and U.S. journalist Luke Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie were killed by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula during the second rescue attempt on Dec. 5. Those attempts followed one over the summer in Syria that unsuccessfully attempted to rescue American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both later beheaded by Daesh.
U.S. commandos, the world’s best trained, equipped and most capable were able to rescue eight other hostages in the first Yemen rescue attempt. But their inability to rescue any of the journalists in the three attempts dating back to the summer speaks to the complexity and danger of such missions, 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.
The murders of Somers and Korkie by the jihadis during the most recent attempt “was not all that surprising,” says O’Shea.
“The bottom line for special operations is that hostage rescues are more challenging than launching the raid that killed UBL,” he says, echoing the thoughts of McRaven, the man who approved the plan to dispatch bin Laden and later became commander of U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base. “If it is just a capture or kill raid, it is still a successful mission if everyone on the target is killed, as long as all your guys come back alive. But with a hostage rescue, many times your target – the hostages – are in the line of fire. Hostage rescue missions have to be surgical, precise and perfect. They are fraught with danger and risk to everyone involved including the rescuers, the kidnappers and the hostages.”
When Sassy Reuven joined the Israeli Defense Forces in November of 1973, the country was reeling from the close call of the Yom Kippur War. “We lost over 3,500 soldiers and had 6,500 injured,” says Reuven, now 59 and owner of a construction firm in California.
In the U.S. with about 30 times the population, that would mean more than 100,000 killed and nearly 500,000 injured.
“It was a very difficult time,” he says. “The entire country was in mourning. And when I tell you mourning, every morning, there were pickup trucks with coffins. The hospitals were filled with injured soldiers.”
Reuven volunteered for the Red Berets.
“Out of 70 men, only 30 made it,” he says.
The paratroopers routinely practice for all types of counter-terror missions.
“We were trained to do hostage missions, fighting in tunnels, fighting in occupied buildings,” he says. In the years leading up to Entebbe, there were plenty of real-world opportunities, fighting with Israel’s asymmetrical enemies, to hone the skills needed in Uganda.
When Air France 139 was hijacked, Reuven was stationed in the Golan Heights. At first, he thought the situation would be resolved diplomatically.
A few days later, Reuven says he received a call from commanders.
“They told me I needed to be ready for a battle,” he says. “I had no idea whatsoever” that it would be to provide cover on the hostage rescue mission.
The next day though, he was told the plans.
“I was very happy, because this is what we trained for,” he says.
At about 11 p.m. July 3 Israel time, the C-130 Reuven was on landed at Entebbe. As it taxied down the runway, Reuven says a green light went on inside the plane, indicating go time.
As the vehicles with Netanyahu and the members of his unit rolled out the back ramp, Reuven jumped out one of the front doors. His team’s job was to keep the Ugandan soldiers in the new terminal at bay while Netanyahu’s unit rescued the hostages in the old terminal. Having taken the terrorists by surprise, and maintaining confusion with the Mercedes, the Israelis secured the hostages in about five minutes, from first contact until the last terrorist was killed.
But several minutes after the terrorists were killed and the hostages rescued, Ugandan soldiers in the control tower on top of the new terminal began firing on Reuven’s position.
“The sky, all over, was filled with bullets,” he says.
Return fire from the Israelis quieted that threat and about 90 minutes after they first landed, Reuven and his countrymen took off from Entebbe, bound for a temporary stop in Nairobi for refueling.
The mission resulted in the rescue of 102 of the 106 hostages – three were killed in the raid and a fourth, taken the day before to a hospital after choking on a sandwich, was ordered murdered by Amin in retaliation.
There was one soldier killed – Yoni Netanyahu, older brother of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is considered the most successful hostage rescue mission ever.
“I was happy to take part in this operation,” says Reuven, “and I was very, very happy that we gave the message that anti-Semitism will never work.”
Unlike Entebbe, the U.S. commandos in Yemen were unable to maintain the element of surprise, military officials told news organizations.
“It’s very difficult to go after one or two guys,” says Reuven of the Yemen raids. “Once the surprise was gone, that’s it.”
The raid on Entebbe is the best example, yet, of how the Principles of Special Operations are used to achieve relative superiority. With less than two days to plan and prepare a major assault mission, the Israelis developed the “simplest” option for success.
-McRaven, from his thesis.
Reuven’s talk, on behalf of Chabad of Pinellas County and Chabad of Clearwater, starts 7:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Express, 2580 Gulf To Bay Blvd. Admission is $10 in advance and $15 at the door. For more information go to http://www.JewishClearwater.com.