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Al-Qaeda murders American hostage during US special forces rescue attempt

A May 2014 photo shows the Yemeni military leading an offensive against al-Qaeda in southern Yemen
A May 2014 photo shows the Yemeni military leading an offensive against al-Qaeda in southern Yemen
STR/AFP/Getty
  1. An al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen murdered hostage Luke Somers, an American journalist, as well as South African teacher Pierre Korkie during an attempted US special forces rescue operation on Friday night.
  2. The terrorists mortally wounded the hostages to prevent them from being rescued; US special forces appear to have been just moments away at the time. Somers died while being evacuated to a nearby US Navy ship; Korkie died in the ship's hospital.
  3. Unlike most other countries, the US refuses to pay ransoms to terrorists. Terrorists in Yemen and elsewhere are trying to force the US to change that policy, in part by murdering American hostages.

The failed rescue operation in Yemen: what happened

Al-Qaeda's Yemen-based branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), kidnapped South African teacher Pierre Korkie and his wife Yolande Korkie in May 2013. The group then kidnapped American freelance journalist Luke Somers from the capital city of Sanaa in September 2013. In January, AQAP released Yolande Korkie. This November, US special forces launched a rescue operation elsewhere in Yemen that retrieved eight hostages from AQAP.

On Wednesday, perhaps in response to the earlier US raid, AQAP announced that it would kill Somers and Korkie if the US did not pay the demanded ransom. On Friday, President Obama approved a US-led special forces operation, along with Yemeni soldiers, to rescue the two hostages, held in a village in southern Yemen. About 100 soldiers descended on the village very late on Friday night. US special forces landed six miles away from the village and hiked in to preserve the element of surprise.

During the firefight, US special forces observed a single AQAP militant enter the building where the hostages were held. The militant was only there "for about a five to seven count . . . long enough of course to shoot people or take any other action," according to a Pentagon official. The militant had attempted to murder the hostages: by the time special forces got to the building, the hostages had both suffered from very serious unspecified injuries.

Both hostages were loaded onto a helicopter and flown to a nearby US Navy ship. Somers died en-route; Korkie died on the ship hospital operating table.

Terrorists are murdering more American hostages

Most countries pay ransoms when their citizens are taken hostage abroad. The US refuses to do this, believing that paying ransoms would just give terrorists the incentive to kidnap more Americans; instead it uses the US military to rescue its citizens, which makes taking Americans hostages more dangerous. The US policy is controversial and much-debated but it is ultimately meant to protect American lives. South Africa, notoriously, often simply refuses to provide its citizens any help whatsoever; Yolande Korkie's release was negotiated by a charity group because the South African government would not intervene.

Over the past year or two, terrorist groups in the Middle East have been taking more Americans hostage. Terrorist groups in Syria, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, have taken several Americans hostage and demanded exorbitant ransoms for their release. During 2014, ISIS has begun murdering its American hostages, beginning with the journalist James Foley, and broadcasting horrific videos of their deaths. While there are surely multiple overlapping reasons that ISIS would do this, one reason that some analysts have suggested is that ISIS may be attempting to compel the US to change its policy on paying ransoms.

Public outrage in the US over the terrorist murders of American citizens has been significant. While the Obama administration has stepped up efforts to rescue American hostages, AQAP's pledge to murder Somers if it did not receive its ransom — a pledge it ultimately kept — shows that jihadist terrorist groups are committed to forcing the US to start paying ransoms, even at the cost of inviting US special forces raids.

The recent increase in terrorist groups taking and murdering American hostages, then, can be partially understood as a conflict between jihadists and the United States over America's ransom-paying policy. It is not clear who will prevail — the US government insists it will not bend, but public pressure could change that — but, in the meantime, American journalists and aid workers abroad will continue to be targeted as pawns in the conflict.

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