MOGADISHU — As the gang of kidnappers slept on the floor of a rough compound in the early hours of Wednesday morning, stoned as usual on a narcotic leaf called “khat,” US special forces were flew in, armed and wide awake.
The Navy SEALs — members of “Team Six” responsible for killing Osama Bin Laden — parachuted in and crept up to the pirate camp and in the brief nighttime raid and shootout that followed two hostages, an American woman and Danish man, were rescued unharmed and nine pirates were killed. None of the SEALs were injured.
Jessica Buchanan, 32, and her Danish colleague Poul Thisted, 60, were working for a mine clearance charity when they were kidnapped close to Galkayo airport last October by a gang believed to be linked to their own bodyguards.
Kidnapping for ransom and piracy are lucrative businesses in Somalia and the gangs, whether they operate on land or at sea, are often connected.
Another American, reportedly a journalist, was seized by gunmen in the same part of Galkayo last weekend and is currently being held for ransom in the pirate town of Hobyo.
Since their abduction Buchanan and Thisted had been moved regularly, crisscrossing the roadless scrubland in 4x4s to thwart just the kind of attack that was launched on Tuesday night where they had set up camp in a compound in a village north of Adado.
According to residents of Galkayo from around 10 p.m. on Tuesday night local time as many as 11 military aircraft arrived and took over the airport. They were gone again before dawn. In the intervening hours Navy SEALs dispatched from Camp Lemonier, a large US military base in Djibouti, carried out the raid surprising the pirates in the dead of night.
The rescue mission was personally ordered by US President Barack Obama on Monday and had been successfully completed by the time he made his State of the Union address on Tuesday night — early Wednesday morning here.
Entering the room Obama pointed a finger at Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and said, “Leon, good job tonight. Good job tonight,” in an apparent reference to the raid.
The White House said that Obama called Buchanan’s father on the phone to tell him of his daughter’s rescue soon after his speech. In a statement Obama said, “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to bring their captors to justice.
“This is yet another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people,” he said.
“This successful hostage rescue, undertaken in a hostile environment, is a testament to the superb skills of courageous service members who risked their lives to save others,” said Panetta separately.
US Navy SEALs have been deployed in Somalia and against kidnappers before. In 2009 they shot dead senior Al Qaeda commander Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in another helicopter raid. Also in 2009 SEAL snipers killed pirates holding Richard Phillips, the American captain of the Maersk Alabama who was being held aboard a lifeboat at sea. But in February last year four Americans held hostage aboard their yacht were killed during a rescue attempt by US forces.
France, too, has ordered in its commandoes with mixed results: a French sailor was shot dead during an attempted rescue mission aboard a small yacht in 2009.
Britain has yet to deploy its special forces to rescue citizens held in Somalia. Paul and Rachel Chandler suffered in captivity for more than a year before relatives paid a ransom for their release in November 2010. Judith Tebbutt, kidnapped from a Kenyan resort last September in a violent abduction that left her husband dead, is still being held somewhere in Somalia.
The raid illustrates the style of military intervention that Obama’s administration clearly favors as it withdraws American armies from more traditional conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan: low-profile, quick and deadly. Small teams of special forces have carried out numerous missions, few of which garner the attention of Bin Laden’s assassination or Tuesday’s hostage rescue, meanwhile drone strikes are on the increase.
As P.J. Crowley, a former administration official and now professor at the US Army War College, put it: “The Somalia raid reinforces an emerging Obama Doctrine: discreet, measured yet decisive action to achieve a definable security objective.”