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Who Was Behind Kidnapping, Rescue in Somalia?

January 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Members of U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 freed two kidnapped aid workers, including one American, early Wednesday -- whisking them away from their captors in Somalia. Jeffrey Brown discusses the kidnappers' motives and how the operation unfolded with NPR's Tom Bowman and the Atlantic Council's Peter Pham.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we get more on the operation and the situation in Somalia from Tom Bowman, NPR’s Pentagon correspondent, and Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. He just returned from a trip to Mogadishu last month.

Welcome to both of you.

Tom Bowman, first, back up first in this story. What’s known about the original kidnapping?

TOM BOWMAN, NPR Pentagon correspondent: Well, this all happened last October. Two people were kidnapped. They were both working for a Danish de-mining organization.

One of them is an American, Jessica Buchanan, 32 years old, from Virginia. And her colleague was a 60-year-old Danish citizen. And we’re told President Obama kept a close eye on this since last fall. And over the last week, we’re told, this whole thing ramped up. There were indications that Jessica Buchanan had a serious health problem. She has a medical condition. We’re not sure if she was out of her medications or whatever.

But they knew they had to move quickly. It was serious enough. They also got actionable intelligence about the precise location of where they were being held. They decided to go in.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Peter Pham, we refer to pirates, criminal organizations. What’s known about this one or about the designation generally?

J. PETER PHAM, Atlantic Council: Well, those categories are somewhat — not transparent, but they’re somewhat flexible in Somalia.

We’re dealing with criminal organizations that will take whatever they can as a target of opportunity. If maritime targets are available, they’re pirates. If human victims are available — but it’s the same business model. It’s kidnapping for random, whether at sea or on land, preferably Westerners whose governments or families are capable of generating hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in ransom.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was the Pentagon saying about this particular group?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, the group, they’re calling them common criminals. There’s no sense they were linked to Al-Shabab, the terrorist group in Somalia.

And, again, there’s no indication also — I know the FBI has been working on this case — no indication at this point of whether there was any ransom request for either of these hostages.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so the raid itself, how was it carried out, from what kind of bases, what kind of personnel?

TOM BOWMAN: We’re told two dozen SEALs from — actually from SEAL Team 6, one of the most elite commando units, left Djibouti on a C-130 aircraft, parachuted into this encampment in northern Somalia, and there was — shots were fired.

They killed nine of these criminals, alleged criminals, whatever you want to call them. And they grabbed the hostages, no casualties among the SEALs, and the hostages were in pretty good shape. And they left by helicopter, went back to Djibouti.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they grabbed some of the kidnappers?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, we’re told that’s not the case now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, is it? I’ve seen it moving around here. So right now it looks like none?

TOM BOWMAN: Right. We were told by the FBI that there were several who were apprehended. But the Pentagon is denying that, saying no one was apprehended in this case.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were just there, Peter Pham. What is the situation with the government? They’re unable, unwilling to deal with these kinds of criminals or pirates?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, the idea of the Somali government, the so-called federal transitional government of Somalia, which is internationally backed, is a legal fiction that makes it convenient for us to pretend that there’s some governing authority there.

In actuality, it functions not like a government. It’s notoriously corrupt. And it doesn’t do anything. It barely has a foothold in Mogadishu, and there only by the grace of a 12,000-strong African Union mission whose sole purpose is to protect the government from its own people.

This is why these criminals, whether they be criminals on land or pirates, carry out their enterprises, because there is no effective governance in these parts.

JEFFREY BROWN: And after a number, a series of piracy on the sea, there was more of a concerted effort by the international community. Is that having an impact?

J. PETER PHAM: That’s certainly having impact.

Piracy continues on the seas, but certainly the pirates are being — having their style cramped by the patrols along the coast. So they turn to other targets of opportunity. And unfortunately people like Jessica who were working to help the Somali people in de-mining present themselves as targets of opportunity.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in a case like this — you referred to the team. This is the elite team and, as the president said, the same team that went and got Osama bin Laden.

TOM BOWMAN: Well, the same organization, not necessarily the same. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Same organization. But that’s what I want to ask you.

TOM BOWMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Different personnel.

TOM BOWMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And personnel from different military and intelligence? You refer to the FBI’s involvement in some. . .

TOM BOWMAN: Well, we’re told the FBI was involved, but this operation was done by SEAL Team Six, again, the same organization that took out Osama bin Laden.

And a lot of times, in cases like this, what they will do is, if they have enough time, they will build a mockup of the operation, the buildings, the encampment they’re going into, so they know exactly where the doors and the windows are, where the tents are, so when they go in, they already know exactly where they’re going to be going.

We don’t know if it happened in this case. But, oftentimes, that’s how they do it. A lot of training, a lot of preparation goes into this kind of operation.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said in this case, one of the determining factors was her health. So was it — but was it all — how much do we know about the preparation and the reason for the final go-ahead from the president?

TOM BOWMAN: We don’t know a lot about the preparation at this point.

People I’ve talked with at the Pentagon and elsewhere say we don’t even have any pictures yet of what this place looked like. They’re calling it an encampment, so that would lead you to believe that maybe some tents there, but probably not any buildings. But — so we don’t know how much preparation time they did have before they went in.

What we’re told is that, in the past week or so, the situation became dire because of her medical condition. They knew they had to go in and get her.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do we know if they had any help on the ground or what the situation is on the ground, where our guys coming in have any assets on the ground?

TOM BOWMAN: We’re not sure about that. But in cases like this in the past, with Abbottabad raid against Osama bin Laden, they would have spotters on the ground watching the compound.

We’re not sure if that happened in this case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there other — there are people still being held, right?

J. PETER PHAM: Yes, we have over 150 seamen who are being held by pirates along the coast for ransom. We also have a number of kidnapping victims.

There is another American out there, Michael Scott Moore, a journalist, freelancer, who was kidnapped just a week ago from the very same area in north central Somalia where Jessica and the Danish citizen were taken from several months ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: And are these actively — I mean, do we know the situation? Is there ransom being asked for? Is a search on for them?

J. PETER PHAM: I presume that certainly the governments involved are keeping close tabs on this and trying to ascertain that they’re safe.

And certainly in light of the successful liberation of these two captives, we also have to be concerned that those holding these others might react against them or perhaps even possibly sell them. What often happens in Somalia is one group will take captives, but they will sell the captives on to a group better able to extract ransom, better connected or better able to hold on to the prisoners.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Peter Pham and Tom Bowman, thank you both very much.

TOM BOWMAN: You’re welcome.

J. PETER PHAM: Thank you.