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DEVGRU - Somalia Aid Workers Rescue

In October 2011, two Western aid workers were taken hostage by pirates in Somalia. They had been engaged in a de-mining project for the Danish Refugee Council, a Non Governmental Organization (NGO). American Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Thisted, 61, a Dan, had been snatched from their vehicle by armed pirates while they were travelling in northern Somalia. The pair were driven to a series of remote locations in the desert/ The pirates contacted the NGO to demand a ransom. The NGO alerted the US embassy in Nairobi. Soon after, the FBI became involved and President Obama was briefed.

Negotiations between the kidnappers and authorities dragged on for several months. While this was going on, the FBI team assigned to the case identified the specific pirate clan involved and eventually pinpointed the location where the hostages were being held. How the camp was located remains classified although it is likely that signals intercepts and the use of unmanned drones played a role.

Buchanan suffered from a thyroid condition that required regular medication that she was not getting. Poor sanitary conditions in the pirate camp resulted in her contracting a kidney infection that required antibiotics. As time progressed, her medical condition continued to deteriorate. During a phone call with negotiators, she expressed fears that her condition would soon become fatal. As a result, it was judged that her medical predicament presented an imminent threat to life, a diagnosis that now put a military intervention into play.

On the 23rd of January 2012, Obama had a meeting with his advisory team during which he green-lit a JSOC rescue operation. The rescue force would include members of Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) - formerly SEAL Team Six, US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR, or the 'Nightstalkers') and elements of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT).

On the night of the 24th, at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, around 24 operators, mostly DEVGRU commandos, loaded onto a AFSOC MC-130 cargo plane. The aircraft flew to a point high above the Somali desert, near the city of Adado. It was an ideal night for such an operation, with a new moon providing a cloak of pitch-black darkness.

Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti (google earth kmz file)

Adado, Somalia (google earth kmz file)

The SEALs deployed via HAHO (High Altitude High Opening parachute. Wearing oxygen apparatus, the DEVGRU force gliding silently down to earth. They also wore GPNVGs, through which they scanned the desert floor that lay beneath them. They landed, formed up and set out on a march out into the desert, heading to where the pirates and their two hostages were encamped.

MC-130 aircraft
The DEVGRU rescue team performed a HAHO jump from an USAF cargo plane, likely a MC-130 Combat Talon II such as pictured here. During HAHO operations, operators jump from high altitude - typically around 27,000 feet - opening their chutes shortly after leaving the aircraft, before gliding down to the ground. HAHO jumpers can glide long distances - up to 40 miles - using this method. HAHO operations are one of the many ways that US SOF such as DEVGRU can insert unnoticed into the enemy's back yard.
photo: US DoD

When the DEVGRU team reached the camp, they were pleased to find a mostly still and quiet scene. Due to a distaste for dogs common among Muslims, the pirates had not stationed watch dogs around the camp. That was good. Even better, the human sentries tasked with protecting the encampment lacked discipline and were either asleep or half-conscious, stoned on the locally-popular Khat narcotic, leaving the place effectively unguarded.

The SEALs crept into final assault positions. Something spooked one of the half-conscious pirates, who leapt to his feet and cocked his AK47. A moment later, the DEVGRU team unleashed hell on the pirates, firing their HK 416 carbines and HK MP7 smgs with well-practised precision. Soon, all nine pirates lay dead. No SEALs had been harmed during the brief and very one-sided fire fight.

For the two hostages it all seemed to happen in an instance. There were bursts of gunfire, accompanied by the cries of pirates as they were hit. Then heavily armed men, their eyes obscured with masks and NVGs were upon them, proclaiming, "We're with the American military. We are here to get you home."

With all resistance at the camp site nullified, the DEVGRU team, precious cargo in tow, exfilled on foot to a nearby pre-arranged extraction point, where they were picked up by a number of helicopters flown by the 160th SOAR. Buchanan and Thisted were flown to Camp Lemonnier where they were given medical treatment.

The hostages had been held captive for 93 days. On the helicopter flight out of Somalia, a member of the FBI HRT contingent handed Buchanan a folded stars and stripes flag. She describes this moment in her book (see below), saying she had never been more proud to be an American. For his part, Poul Thisted later commented that he had had the great fortune to have been taken hostage alongside an American.


Impossible Odds

Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by Seal Team Six

This book tells the story of Jessica Buchanan's ordeal and subsequent rescue by DEVGRU. The sections told through Jessica's point of view are intense, harrowing and, ultimately, uplifting. If you want to know what it is like to be kidnapped by pirates then rescued by SEAL Team 6 then this book puts you right there.

more info: Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by Seal Team Six

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