A senior U.S. administration official provided details Saturday on the failed mission to rescue American journalist Luke Somers, who had been held hostage by al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen for over a year. Somers and a South African hostage died during the attempted rescue.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, threatened earlier this week to kill Somers within 72 hours. That deadline was Saturday. According to the official, the operation to rescue Somers was planned Friday morning. President Obama was briefed on the situation that same morning, and he authorized the rescue mission by early afternoon, Eastern Time.
The official emphasized that the mission was approved "very quickly" after the U.S. had actual intelligence. In recent days, the administration had faced some criticism over what some characterized as a lengthy approval process for an earlier attempt to rescue Somers.
The operation lasted around 30 minutes and happened on what the official described as "challenging terrain" in the Shabwa region of Yemen. The most difficult part of the raid lasted between five and 10 minutes. It was carried out with Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's permission.
A 40-person team of Navy SEALs landed near the compound and moved in. As the SEALs approached it, they lost the "element of surprise" - perhaps they were spotted, perhaps a dog barked, it remains unclear. A firefight ensued, the official said.
However, during that time, the SEALs also witnessed a single fighter move into the building where they believed the hostages were being held, the official said. He was in there long enough to shoot two people. By the time the SEALs made it to the building, they did not have to engage the terrorists because they had fled.
The belief is that the hostages were shot by that same AQAP militant while the SEALs were engaged in a firefight, the official noted, though an after-action report on the raid is ongoing. The two hostages were still alive when the SEALs found them, but they had recently been wounded. A medical team was on the ground with the SEALs. The two hostages were put on a CV-22 Osprey with a surgeon and moved to a Navy ship. One of the two hostages died en route to the ship while the other died onboard.
There were six AQAP fighters killed during the raid, according to the official, who said none of the SEALs were injured and there was no evidence of civilian casualties.
There was some information from an unsuccessful raid conducted last week that was "helpful" when it came to conducting this raid, the official noted. The U.S. did not have any reason to believe that AQAP was going to spare Somers' life at the end of the 72-hour window that they had publicly announced. The belief was always that AQAP was going to execute him, which is why the raid was conducted Friday.