Yesterday, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron announced the failure of a military operation planned to rescue two European engineers who were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in Nigeria some ten months ago. After precise intelligence pointed to the location in which they were held by their captors, and following several execution threats made by their kidnappers, a British Special Boats Service force broke into the compound, and despite killing one of the kidnappers, the two hostages, the Briton Chris McManus and the Italian Franco Lamolinara, were murdered by their captors before the rescuers could reach them.
This incident is very reminiscent of the attempt to rescue the kidnapped soldier Nakhshon Vaxman in Israel in 1994. In that case there were also clear and immediate threats on his life, precise intelligence was obtained of his whereabouts, the Israeli Prime Minister personally approved the rescue attempt by a special forces unit and the hostage was murdered by his captors during the rescue attempt. It is heart-warming to learn, by the way, that Nakhshon Vaxman’s murderers were released recently in the Gilad Shalit deal, with Vaxman’s family’s approval, it should be noted.
Rescue operations of hostages held by armed kidnappers are extremely complex. The intelligence is never complete and the possibilities that something will go wrong are many. In the past, rescue operations that looked nearly impossible were carried out with spectacular success, like the release of the Sabena passengers at Ben-Gurion airport and the release of the Air France passengers in Entebbe, both by IDF soldiers, or the rescue of the Lufthansa passengers in Mogadishu by the German anti-terror unit G.S.G. 9. In contrast, over the years there were operations that ended in complete failure, from the chain of serious mishaps that hit the American airborne forces that attempted to release the hostages from the US embassy in Tehran in 1980, to the failed attempt to rescue Linda Norgrove from the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan last year that ended with her death.
I do not envy a president or a prime minister who has to approve a highly risky rescue operation and to explain later its failure in front of the cameras, but these failures should be viewed against the backdrop of the shocking videos of Al-Qaeda and Taliban hostages being beheaded in front of a video camera when rescue operations were not possible or were not approved. Personally, if I was to be a hostage of one of these terror organisations God forbid, I would rather my family heard from my prime minister that the daring attempt to rescue me had failed and had ended with my death, than that they would see an internet video showing a few extreme Islamist lunatics beheading me while singing in unison “Allah u Akabar”.