President Obama “does not regret at all” ordering the mission to rescue American journalist Luke Somers from al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen, even though it ended in the execution of Somers and a South African hostage.
“It was apparent that these militants were preparing to kill Mr. Somers on Saturday,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters today. “That’s why this raid was executed on very short notice on Friday night… [That it happened so quickly] is a testament to the bravery and skill of our men and women in uniform.”
Additionally, Earnest said the effort “should be taken as a clear sign of this president’s resolve to do anything possible to rescue hostages anywhere around the globe.” Terrorists, he said, have been “put on notice.”
U.S. officials said Somers and South African aid worker Pierre Korkie were fatally shot early Saturday morning local time by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) terrorists as a team of more than 40 American commandos were attempting to rescue the pair.
According to a counter-terrorism official, the special operations team was spotted when one of the militants walked out of his compound, apparently to relieve himself. After raising the alarm, the militants engaged in a firefight with the American commandos. Six al Qaeda fighters were killed, none of the Americans were injured, officials said.
But at some point, one of the terrorists ran inside the compound where the hostages were being held and shot them both. The hostages were alive when the American commandos found them, but died shortly after.
“There was zero possibility that the hostages were victims of crossfire,” a military official said Saturday. “This was an execution.”
The entire operation, an administration official said, took just 30 minutes.
“The United States strongly condemns the barbaric murder of Luke Somers at the hands of al Qaeda terrorists during a rescue operation conducted by U.S. forces in Yemen,” President Obama said in a written statement Saturday.
Last Wednesday, AQAP had released a video featuring Somers in which a militant threatens to take his life in three days if the group’s demands – unspecified in the video – were not met.
The latest attempt was the second to rescue Somers. A joint U.S.-Yemeni operation launched Nov. 25 was successful in rescuing several hostages from AQAP, but Somers and another hostage -- possibly Korkie -- had been moved before that operation got off the ground, officials said.
Somers was kidnapped in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a last September. He had come to Yemen as a teacher and later became a photojournalist.
Korkie, the South African hostage killed alongside Somers, was an aid worker who had been kidnapped with his wife, Yolande, in mid-2013, according to the South African government.
Yolande was freed in January, and the founder of Korkie’s organization said this weekend they had recently reached a deal with al Qaeda for Korkie's freedom, contingent on a ransom payment, and expected him to be released Sunday.
U.S. officials said they were unaware of Korkie’s possible imminent release, or even that he was the hostage being held with Somers.
An opposition party in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance (DA), released a statement Sunday urging the South African government to “urgently engage with American representatives to get to the bottom of the circumstances that led to Mr. Korkie’s death.”