Could Obama Have Saved His Hostages?

The confirmed death of the jihadists’ last American detainee has lifted the lid on the secrecy surrounding the details of a failed rescue mission.

It’s a controversy that risks adding to the already numerous criticisms of the U.S. military’s inability to make quick decisions when the urgency of a situation requires it: Information obtained by France and the U.K. had already been passed to the CIA in spring 2014, relating to the very likely location of several hostages of jihadists — among whom were three Americans that were murdered — along with Kayla Mueller, the young humanitarian aid worker. But in early July, when U.S. Army Special Forces launched a high-risk operation in Syrian territory to attempt to rescue them, it was too late. They only found traces of the hostages’ very recent presence – without doubt less than 48 hours previously – at the location where they had been held.

The debriefing of French hostages released in March, as well as information obtained by undercover DGSE (General Directorate for External Security) and MI6, made it possible in April to May of 2014 to establish with near certainty that the Western hostages were being held in two or three buildings in the vicinity of the Syrian city of Raqqa, near an oil refinery and the headquarters of certain high-ranking Islamic State fighters. These tip-offs had clearly been shared with U.S. authorities.

But if, since then, the JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) had been planning the feasibility of a rescue mission – considered, incidentally, as extremely difficult and risky – the intelligence services (both the CIA’s and those of the Army) were skeptical about the value of the information shared with them by their allies.

Almost Three Months of Waiting

We had to wait until mid-June and the release of Danish photographer Daniel Rye Ottosen for those in charge in Washington to start considering a raid. Information provided by Ottosen was indeed recent, precise and consistent: Released on June 19 near the Turkish border, he had left behind just a few days earlier the four American hostages who were being held together at that time. Additionally, he had given new details about the building where their cells were set up.

But a week elapsed from when he was released and the White House informed, to when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave the green light. And it was another week before Obama gave his approval and a hundred elite commandos, supported by Black Hawk helicopters and high-altitude jets, arrived in Raqqa on July 4. After intense fighting in which tens of jihadi fighters were killed, the commandos found the empty cells containing the remains of a meal, proving that the hostages had left recently. DNA tests would confirm that James Foley (executed in August), Steven Sotloff (September), Peter Kassig (November) and Kayla Mueller (killed in a bombing raid in February 2015) had stayed there; but now they were gone, “a few hours or days”* before, Obama admitted.


The White House obviously played down the time that had been lost. To start with, they explained that a hostage-rescue operation is a lot more difficult to execute than the one that allowed them to get rid of bin Laden, if only because there were safety concerns for the hostages — their abductors might kill them. This is what happened to American photographer Luke Somers as he was about to be released in Yemen.

U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice noted that the president gave the order to go as soon as he knew that the mission was only waiting for the green light.

But more needs to be done to halt the controversy, which is hotly debated in the U.S., concerning the legitimacy of whether or not to agree to pay a ransom to save compatriots held hostage. The Americans are deeply suspicious of us regarding this practice, notwithstanding the fact that the French and the British, who were pressured by families of murdered hostages, can rightfully regret that the Americans didn’t trust the information passed to them more quickly — almost three months before the failed mission in Raqqa.

*Editor’s note: Obama is actually quoted as saying that the rescue mission “probably missed them by a day or two.”

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply