Khartoum, Sudan – Around 2 a.m. Wednesday, elders in the Somali village of Galkayo said they began hearing an unusual sound: the whir of helicopters.
It was the culmination of a daring and risky mission by about two dozen members of the Navy Seals to rescue two hostages — an American aid worker and her Danish colleague — held by Somalisince October. The commandos had dropped down in parachutes under a cloak of darkness while 8,000 miles away President Obama was preparing to deliver his on Tuesday night. The commandos hiked two miles from where they landed, grabbed the hostages and flew them to safety.
For the American military, the mission was characterized by the same ruthless efficiency — and possibly good luck — as the raid on Osama bin Laden in May, which was carried out by commandos from the same elite unit. Nine Somali gunmen were killed; not a single member of the Seals was hurt.
One pirate from the area who seemed to have especially detailed information about the Seal raid said it involved “an electrical net-trap, flattened into the land,” which presumably was the parachute. “Then they started launching missiles,” said the pirate, who spoke by telephone and asked not to be identified.
Pirates operate with total impunity in many parts of lawless, which has languished without a functioning government for more than 20 years. As naval efforts have intensified on the high seas, stymieing hijackings, Somali pirates seem to be increasingly snatching foreigners on land. Just last week, pirates grabbed another American hostage not far from where the Seal raid took place.
American officials said they were moved to strike in this case because they had received “actionable intelligence” that the health of Jessica Buchanan, the American aid worker, was rapidly deteriorating. The gunmen had just refused $1.5 million to let the two hostages go, Somali elders said, and ransom negotiations had ground to a halt.
Somali pirates have held hostages for months, often in punishing conditions with little food, water or shelter, and past ransoms have topped more than $10 million. One British couple sailing around the world on a little sailboat was kidnapped by pirates from this same patch of central Somalia and held in captivity for more than a year.
President Obama, who Pentagon officials said personally approved the rescue plan and raid, had called several high-level meetings on the case since the two aid workers were kidnapped by gunmen who Somali elders said were part of a well-established pirate gang. “As commander in chief, I could not be prouder of the troops who carried out this mission,” Mr. Obama said in a statement on Wednesday. “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people.”
On Oct. 25, Ms. Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted, the Danish aid worker, were kidnapped by two truckloads of gunmen as they headed to the airport in Galkayo, a central Somalia town on the edge of pirate territory. The two were working for the Danish Refugee Council, one of the few Western organizations still operating in that area. The aid workers had just finished a workshop on land mines right before they were kidnapped.
Ms. Buchanan, 32, has been working in Africa for about five years and “could hardly talk about Africa without tears in her eyes,” said Don Meyer, the president of Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, Pa., which Ms. Buchanan attended.
Somali officials immediately suspected that a local employee of the Danish aid group had tipped off the gunmen, and though American officials argued that the kidnappers were criminals with no direct links to any of the pirate bands that have attacked shipping lanes off Somalia, Somali elders said the men belonged to a well-known pirate gang drawn from local clans.
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, the internationally recognized but relatively impotent authority based in the capital, Mogadishu, has little influence over the pirates.
Neither do the traditional, clan-based militias that still operate in these areas but cannot afford the weaponry or manpower now fielded by well-financed pirate gangs.
Somalia is also considered out of reach for conventional American military operations, though it has been the site of several Special Operations raids, usually to kill wanted terrorism suspects. American forces stage the raids from a constellation of bases ringing Somalia, in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya.
On Nov. 23, Mr. Obama called a meeting with top White House national security aides to discuss what to do about the two hostages.
Two days before that, Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, met with the Danish justice minister.
Then last week, officials learned Ms. Buchanan’s health was getting worse, providing an “added sense of urgency,” said George Little, a Pentagon spokesman.
Top aides advised Mr. Obama that a clandestine operation might be required, and Mr. Obama began directing the planning for a raid, Pentagon officials said.
On Saturday, top national security officials held a videoconference to discuss the final options, followed by another videoconference on Monday evening. Ninety minutes later, Mr. Obama gave the go-ahead.
According to Pentagon officials, shots rang out within minutes of the Seal team’s reaching the pirate encampment in Hiimo Gaabo, south of Galkayo. In the ensuing gun battle, the nine Somali gunmen were killed.
There were differing accounts as to whether the Americans captured any of the gunmen, with local officials saying several had been captured, and the pirate who spoke by telephone saying that “five were taken alive.” But Pentagon officials were adamant that no prisoners had been taken.
Shortly after dawn, the nine bodies of the dead gunmen were taken to Hiimo Gaabo. But there was little sympathy for them there.
Several elders said that they were pleased with the rescue operation, and they blamed Somalia’s pirate gangs for sullying Somalia’s reputation and causing inflation by carelessly spending millions of dollars of ransom money.
“The pirates are not taking our advice or orders,” one elder said Wednesday. “They are outlawed, and they are only making our image look bad.”
Somali elders have been trying to mediate in hostage situations, and a team had just returned from trying to secure the release of another American, a freelance journalist, who was kidnapped last week in Galkayo.
He remains in captivity in Hobyo, a pirate den on the Somali coast, because the pirates holding him refuse to let him go without a hefty ransom.
At 6:43 p.m. on Tuesday, as Mr. Obama put the finishing touches on his State of the Union address, he was told that the two hostages had been rescued and were safely in American hands.
As he stepped into the House chamber to deliver his speech, he looked right at Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta standing in the crowd and said, “Leon, good job tonight, good job.”
At 10:32 p.m., after the speech, Mr. Obama called John Buchanan, Jessica’s father, and informed him that his daughter was safe.
Asked whether this rescue mission signaled a new more aggressive tact against Somali pirates, the National Security Council spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said each episode would still be reviewed on “case-by-case basis.”
But Mr. Vietor added, “Certainly, this sends a pretty clear message that the kidnapping of U.S. citizens will not be tolerated.”