February 3, 2012

Hostage rescues: When hope runs out, U.S. elite troops go in

Special forces units have carried out a string of hostage rescues, but the raids remain high-risk.

By JASON STRAZIUSO The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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In 2005 video, Roy Hallums pleads for Arab rulers to intercede to spare his life. He was kidnapped in Iraq and held for 311 days before Army Delta Force troops rescued him.

The Associated Press

Susan Hallums, Roy Hallums
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Family photo shows Susan Hallums, right, and her ex-husband, Roy Hallums.

The Associated Press

Rescues entail risk, but Hallums, who was kidnapped by a gang in November 2004, is thankful that the U.S. military carries them out.

Without a rescue attempt, the former contractor from Memphis, Tenn., said: "I was going to be dead for sure."

Hallums' captors were demanding $12 million for his release. His Saudi Arabia-based employer -- which provided support services for U.S. troops -- offered $1 million.

Hallums noted that a successful rescue requires the work of many more people than the commandoes who carry out the raid.

The FBI, CIA and National Security Agency all work to gather information, data that is then turned over to military intelligence, where an operations officer devises a rescue plan.

"You hear about SEAL Team 6 but behind them there's hundreds of people working to get information that they can take out and execute the rescue," Hallums said.

Conducting a rescue involves life-and-death calculations. The teams must assess the risk of the raid, both to the military personnel and the hostages themselves.

In 2009, an Afghan translator kidnapped alongside a New York Times reporter was killed in a hail of bullets during a rescue attempt by British commandoes. Such deaths underscore the dangers of hostage rescues.

"You don't want dead SEALs. That has a whole range of military and political ramifications," said Jones, who has a book called "Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa'ida since 9/11" coming out in May. "You also don't want dead hostages. Sometimes you get this stuff wrong, since you're always dealing in probability."

Jones said he lacks data to know if the number of hostage rescues is rising, but that special operations activities are increasing overall. The military at large is undergoing financial cutbacks, he noted, but the budget for special operations forces is intact.

Technology has improved the chances of success. Aerial drones can monitor guard activity and provide a layout of the location. Watching a pattern of life allows the military to make educated guesses about the chances for success.

But even with that advantage, Evans said no mission is guaranteed success. The Somali captors could have shot and killed the American and Danish hostages during last week's raid if they had seen the SEALs coming, she said. That's why most people try to reach a negotiated rescue -- a ransom payment -- instead.

But Hallums said even though hostage rescues are risky, sometimes they have to be done.

"There's risk, but look at the risk I was in. I was going to be dead for sure -- 100 percent," he said. "So it's better odds with them coming in to try and help you out. Because otherwise you have no chance."

 

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