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