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AQAP

What Goes Wrong With Failed Hostage Rescues

The failed rescue attempt of an American photojournalist held captive by Al-Qaeda highlights how dangerous and complicated such missions can be.

By Elizabeth Hagedorn | December 8, 2014

The infamous 1980 plan to rescue a group of Americans held hostage in Iran ended in disaster. Thirty years later, rescue methods have improved, but the missions remain risky. (Video via National Archives

Friday 33-year-old American photojournalist Luke Somers died during a botched special operation to free him from his Al-Qaeda captors. Here's what reportedly went wrong. (Video via AQAP)

A 40-person team of Navy SEALS landed about 5 miles away from the compound in Yemen where Somers was being held. They approached the target on foot. When they got about 100 yards away, they lost the element of surprise — possibly due to a barking dog. A 10-minute firefight ensued, and Somers was shot in the crossfire.

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"It was a very dangerous and complicated mission, but like always in these efforts, there's risk," U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said. (Video via MSNBC)

In these situations, the U.S. has to weigh the costs of acting against the costs of not acting. 

As Bloomberg observes, "Even if captives die in the attempt, they are spared becoming a gruesome spectacle on extremist videos."

There are four key ingredients to a successful rescue mission: surprise, intelligence, operator skill and deception. (Video via U.S. Department of Defense

This according to Carlos Perez, author of "Anatomy of a Rescue." He writes, "The historical cases show that in every instance any one of these four principles was overlooked, the operation was doomed."

Faulty intelligence was the issue when the U.S. tried rescuing journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley from ISIS. By the time Special Ops reached the target in eastern Syria, the prisoners had already been moved to a different site.  

This isn't to say rescue missions can't be successful. In 2009, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers rescued Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in a dramatic standoff that became the inspiration for the film "Captain Phillips." (Video via U.S. Navy, Columbia Pictures / "Captain Phillips"

More recently, in 2012, two dozen Navy SEALs successfully freed this American aid worker and her Danish colleague, also held captive by Somali pirates. (Video via ABC)

In November, President Obama ordered a review of U.S. policy on rescuing American hostages, but there seems to be a difference of opinion within the administration. This weekend, outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said such a review was unnecessary. 

This video includes an image from Getty Images and FreeJamesFoley.org / Nichole Tung. 

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