President Obama's business-as-usual demeanor as he delivered the State of the Union address on Tuesday evening masked a secret known only to him and a few others in the House chamber. Thousands of miles away, a strike team led by the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 were completing a successful operation to free two Western aid workers, an American and a Dane, held by Somali kidnappers since October. The U.S. commandos killed nine heavily armed Somali kidnappers and flew the hostages to a nearby American military base in Djibouti, but the operatives were still on the ground as the president took the stage and began his prepared remarks. Only the "Good job tonight" that Obama said to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta upon entering the room indicated something might be up.
An analysis of the daring raid highlights two key aspects of the Obama presidency: a willingness to send American commandos on high-risk missions to free American hostages or kill terrorist leaders, and a striking ability to give no hint that such operations were under way while delivering high-profile remarks like the State of the Union.
At last May’s White House Correspondents Dinner, for instance, host Seth Meyers joked that “people think bin Laden is hiding in the Hindu Kush, but did you know that every day from 4 to 5, he hosts a show on C-SPAN?” Cameras showed Obama and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates laughing and smiling; neither gave the slightest indication that at that moment, members of SEAL Team 6 were making final preparations to embark on the raid that ultimately killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
This administration maintained its renowned ability to keep planning for such Special Operations raids secret during preparations for the mission that resulted in the rescue of American aid worker Jessica Buchanan, 32, and her Danish colleague, Poul Thisted, 60.
This account is based on interviews with several Pentagon and military officials familiar with the planning and execution of the raid. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the operation. Pentagon spokesman George Little and Capt. John Kirby provided some general information about the raid but declined to discuss specifics like whether the kidnappers fired at the U.S. assault team. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor provided a rough timeline of the preparations for the raid but similarly declined to discuss operational details about the assault.
Buchanan had spent a semester teaching in Nairobi while attending Valley Force Christian College in Valley Forge, Penn., and the experience, according to professors there, kindled a deep love for Africa. Buchanan moved to Kenya after graduating in 2007, and had been in Africa ever since. In 2010, she took a job with the Danish Refugee Council, working on de-mining dangerous parts of Africa. Buchanan has worked with the organization ever since, traveling widely across the region.
On Oct. 25, she and Thisted were on their way to visit a de-mining site near the town of Galkayo when they abruptly disappeared. The humanitarian group soon learned that they were being held by an unknown group of Somali gunmen. Obama was first notified about Buchanan’s kidnapping the following day.
The Danish Refugee Council, which has worked in Africa for decades, enlisted Somali elders, clan leaders, and politicians to negotiate for the hostages’ release, to no end. It is virtually certain that those conversations included ransom discussions; dozens of other Western hostages held by Somali kidnappers have been freed after money was paid on their behalf.
In late November, the White House’s top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, met with Danish Justice Minister Morton Boedskov to talk about the stalled efforts to recover Buchanan and Thisted. A person familiar with the matter says that discussions about a potential rescue mission was already taking place by that point, with personnel from the FBI and several military intelligence agencies working closely with the Joint Special Operations Command, the secretive organization which oversees the Army’s Delta Force and the SEALs, to identify where the hostages were being held and assess how many armed kidnappers would likely be at the site.
In December, U.S. intelligence agencies tracked the hostages and their abductors to a small compound near the Somali town of Adow, according to a person familiar with the matter. American drones flying out of Djibouti transmitted video imagery showing that the compound was rarely guarded by more than nine men at a time and that the abductors appeared to spend much of their time sleeping, that person said.
Last week, the U.S. received new intelligence suggesting that Buchanan’s health had deteriorated rapidly because of a preexisting medical condition. Brennan, during one of his daily meetings with Obama about Buchanan, warned she could die if left in Somalia much longer. That conversation marked a turning point for the White House, which began intensive planning for a military rescue mission.
The moment of truth came just two days ago, during an evening of intensive planning at the White House. At 7:15 p.m. EST on Monday, Brennan, Panetta, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and other top military and civilian national-security officials began a lengthy videoconference to discuss potential options for the actual raid. They settled on using highly trained helicopter pilots from the Air Force’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers, to fly a SEAL assault force into Somalia, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The initial strategy of the raid was to quickly seize Buchanan and Thisted, apprehend the kidnappers so they could be interrogated, and then fly the aid workers and those who had held them out of Somalia. At 9 p.m., Brennan walked into the Obamas' residence on the top floors of the White House and briefed the president on the plan. Obama gave his final go-ahead.
The raid began on Tuesday just after 5 p.m. Washington time, around four hours before Obama gave his State of the Union address. Panetta, who had overseen the earlier bin Laden raid, monitored the mission from the White House. Thousands of miles away, the SEALs parachuted down to an area near the compound and quietly made their way toward the site. The Danish government was given advance word about the raid; the Somali government was not.
U.S. officials said the kidnappers were heavily armed and that there were large quantities of explosives at the compound, but declined to say whether the kidnappers fired at the Americans; Somalis quoted by the Associated Press said the gunmen were asleep, in a narcotics-induced haze. Pentagon spokesmen refused to comment on the AP report that the gunmen were asleep. Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Defense Department spokesman George Little said the raiding party "had very concrete plans for removing the kidnappers and placing them in detention." That option, Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said, "didn't present itself." All nine kidnappers were killed.
At 6:43 p.m. on Tuesday, during Obama’s final preparations for his speech, Brennan informed him that the mission was successful and that Buchanan and Thisted had been safely recovered and flown to Djibouti for medical treatment. There were no casualties or injuries among the U.S. commandos. Two and a half hours later, on his way to the House podium, Obama stopped next to Panetta, winked at him, and said, "Good job tonight"—twice.
Within minutes of leaving the House chamber, the president was on the phone to the Buchanans’ family home in Virginia. Jessica, he told Buchanan’s father, John, was safely in American hands.
Sara Sorcher and Kevin Baron contributed contributed to this article.