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Middle East News
How the Raid in Yemen Went Wrong
From the Wall Street Journal of Mon, 08 Dec 2014 00:17:29 EST
An image made from video posted online by militants on Thursday shows Luke Somers, an American photojournalist born in Britain and held hostage by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen.
An image made from video posted online by militants on Thursday shows Luke Somers, an American photojournalist born in Britain and held hostage by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. Associated Press

Under the cover of night, U.S. commandos approached the walled compound on foot, hoping to catch unawares the militants holding two hostages, including American Luke Somers.

Then, less than 100 yards from their target, something went terribly wrong. A noise, maybe a dog bark, alerted the militants to the raiders, according to U.S. officials briefed on the operation. The rescue team’s biggest advantage—the element of surprise—was lost in that moment, and the shooting started.

When the dust settled 30 minutes later, the roughly 40-man Special Operations team emerged from the compound carrying Mr. Somers and a South African hostage, both badly wounded. The medics couldn’t save them, and the two were pronounced dead after their evacuation.

The operation took place after midnight Saturday local time in a remote area of southern Yemen. White House officials knew the operation would be risky. They also didn’t see any better options.

American photojournalist Luke Somers was killed by his al Qaeda captors during a failed U.S. rescue mission on December 5. Photo/Video: AP

U.S. intelligence officials had assessed that militants with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, who were holding Mr. Somers, intended to kill him later that day, in keeping with a death threat they had issued earlier in the week.

“They were serious,” a senior administration official said of AQAP’s threat. “They were going to execute him on Saturday.”

The failed raid is a visceral and tragic reminder of the limits of Special Operations forces as a tool against terror groups. While the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a spectacular success, others have been less so, including a failed attempt earlier this year to spring U.S. hostages held by the militant group Islamic State, as well as a previous effort to free Mr. Somers.

The compound is in a remote area in Yemen’s Shabwah governorate.
The compound is in a remote area in Yemen’s Shabwah governorate.

The following reconstruction of the failed raid was based on interviews with senior administration and military officials.

Officials said the previous Somers rescue attempt, which occurred late last month, led U.S. intelligence agencies to the compound in southern Yemen that the Special Operations team raided on Saturday.

The intelligence crystallized for the U.S. military late on Thursday. The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command wanted to conduct the mission the next night. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and then, President Barack Obama , approved the raid on Friday morning, before Mr. Hagel left on a trip to Afghanistan, according to a defense official.

U.S. officials briefed Yemen’s president and won his permission to proceed with a raid on Yemeni territory.

To try and preserve the element of surprise, the rescue team landed about five miles away and hiked to the targeted compound through hilly, rough terrain, officials said.

The moon overhead was diminishing in brightness at the time of the operation, which took place at around 1 a.m. Saturday, or 5 p.m. Eastern time Friday. Usually, military planners prefer to carry out such stealthy missions on nights with little to no moonlight.

For days, U.S. intelligence agencies had kept close watch on the location, figuring out how many militants were there and fine-tuning plans for the raid. The large Special Operations team approached without incident to within about 100 yards of the outer compound wall when their cover was blown.

U.S. officials aren’t sure what alerted the militants inside the compound to the approaching rescue team, but they believe the militants heard a noise. AQAP militants in the compound immediately opened fire.

Military officials don’t believe the militants were tipped off about the approach of the team, but believe AQAP was on high alert and “on edge” because of the November attempt to rescue Mr. Somers, the defense official said.

The large outer compound, in a remote area in Yemen’s Shabwah governorate, was divided into four smaller interior compounds. The U.S. knew the hostages were being held in a small building in one of those interior compounds. That was the main target for the commandos.

South African Pierre Korkie
South African Pierre Korkie Associated Press

U.S. officials knew one of the hostages being held there was Mr. Somers. They didn’t know who the other was until after the raid was completed. He was later identified as South African Pierre Korkie.

Immediately after the firefight broke out at the entrance to the main compound, one of the AQAP militants rushed inside the building where the hostages were being held, according to U.S. officials briefed on the operation.

The militant was inside for only a few moments. He then ran out. U.S. officials couldn’t see what was happening inside the building but believe that is when the two hostages were shot.

U.S. officials said they don’t believe stray bullets fired by the U.S. rescue team could have reached the hostages because there was a wall separating the commandos from the building where they were held.

When the Special Operations team, which included medics, entered the building, the two hostages were still alive. The medics immediately started to work to stop the bleeding.

Less than 30 minutes after the firefight first broke out, the two wounded hostages were evacuated under fire from the compound and loaded onto a nearby V-22 Osprey aircraft, which had a surgical team onboard.

One of the hostages died on the Osprey.

The other died on an operating table aboard the USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship that was positioned just off the coast of Yemen.

U.S. officials declined to identify which of the hostages died on the Osprey and which died on the ship.

The U.S. military believes about six AQAP militants were killed during the firefight, but they don’t know for sure. The U.S. thought some civilians might have lived inside the compound, but the commandos didn’t report encountering any during the raid, officials said.

The commandos emerged unscathed.

After the raid, Lisa Monaco, the White House’s top homeland-security and counterterrorism adviser, informed Mr. Obama that the hostages had been killed.

Write to Adam Entous at

Corrections & Amplifications

The South African hostage killed in the raid was Pierre Korkie. A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misstated his surname as Korki.

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