The American businessman lay shackled in a mud hut 8,000 feet up a remote mountain in Afghanistan, armed captors posted inside and outside to prevent any escape attempt.
Earlier in his captivity, he had made a run for it, but — barefoot and much older than the insurgents who held him — he was snatched back before he could get far.
After nearly two months in captivity and out of contact with anyone who cared about him, the hostage reviewed what his fate might hold — whether ransom negotiations or rescue efforts or a miracle might bring him freedom.
“One option was for the money to arrive and be ransomed,” the 61-year-old engineer from Ohio told Military Times, speaking on the condition that he remain anonymous. Another was “that they’d just get tired of me and let me loose.” A third was “some kind of military intervention,” he said. “In my mind I’d given a military intervention a one out of a hundred chance. Not that they couldn’t do it, but they’re busy and I’m not that important a fellow.”
On an airstrip many miles away, however, several twin sets of Chinook helicopter rotor blades were starting to turn as about 60 of America’s most elite troops prepared to prove him wrong. Members of a task force that Military Times agreed not to name, the commandos had been hunting for the businessman since soon after he went missing. Now they were ready to act.
This is the story of one of the most daring and successful U.S. hostage-rescue missions in years.
Stopped on the road
The American businessman and his Afghan partner in an engineering firm that employed 15 locals were driving home Aug. 20 from a funeral in Wardak province when they were stopped along the road by an armed man.
“Initially, there was one armed man who stopped us and demanded papers from my partner,” the American businessman said in a Nov. 6 telephone interview.
“That happens fairly often in Afghanistan,” said the businessman, who had worked in the country for nine years. “I didn’t think too much about it. … Then he wanted to see my papers.”
After the gunman took an inordinate time examining his documents, the American realized something was wrong. “Things weren’t going the way they normally went,” he said. “We were taken to a local hiding place” and then to a more remote location.
The hostage-takers were no mere criminals, but members of the Hezb-i-Islami (Party of Islam) militant group of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a special operations officer familiar with the mission said.
A radical Islamist warlord, Hekmatyar was a principal beneficiary of U.S. covert aid during the war fought by Afghan mujahidin against the Soviet and Afghan communist forces in the 1980s but is now relentlessly hunted by U.S. forces along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The American’s wife, who worked with him in Afghanistan, realized something had happened to her husband when he failed to return home. At first, she and others close to him tried to negotiate through third parties with the kidnappers. Within about five days, the engineer’s Afghan partner was released when the duo’s company paid a ransom for him, but the kidnappers didn’t seem interested in exchanging the American for cash.
“I’m an American and America’s been bombing them and they can’t get back, so if they get hold of an American, they’d like to get back at him,” the engineer said. “We’ve taken a lot of Afghan blood, so they wanted mine.”
The task force was notified almost immediately of the kidnapping, which was kept quiet out of concern that publicizing it might place the hostage’s life in jeopardy and make locating him more difficult, the special operations officer said.
For five days, the kidnappers frequently moved their prisoners around the mountains. Then, after releasing the Afghan hostage, they kept the American in an open-air location for about 45 to 50 days, the businessman said. The kidnappers treated him “reasonably well,” he said. “The food was bread and water, … but for some reason, my bread always turned out stale. … Their bread when it’s fresh is good stuff, but after three days old, it’s not much fun anymore.”
Most of the time, two kidnappers were present. “I had one fellow who was with me the whole time — a young guy — and a second young fellow who was often with me, but not always,” he said. “Sometimes they traded off.”
At first, the kidnappers allowed the hostage to keep his hands and feet free, but then they put a chain and two padlocks around his legs. One day, when his captors had left him alone, the engineer broke the padlocks and tried to escape. He made it part way to the nearest house when one kidnapper saw him.
“The guy finally showed up and saw me going down across the valley, and his being about 21 years old and I’m 61, he kind of gained on me,” the engineer said. “I was barefoot, too. … After that, they tied me up a lot more.”
The kidnappers eventually demanded a ransom for the engineer’s release that far exceeded what had been paid to secure his partner’s freedom. Deadlines came and went. “These fellows wanted either blood or money, and they weren’t getting it that way,” the engineer said.
After about 30 days, frustrated with the slow pace of negotiations, they let the engineer use a cell phone to call his wife.
It was the first of four calls to her he was permitted, allowing him to pass information to her in English, a language his captors did not understand.
The kidnappers moved the engineer for the last time about Oct. 9 or 10, when they put him in a one-room mud hut on a mountainside in Wardak’s Nirkh district, about 30 miles west of Kabul. Roughly a day later, he made the final call to his wife.
Those searching for him at last had a bead on where he was being held.
“The task force was able to locate [the hostage] using a variety of information collection measures,” the special operations officer said. He declined to be more specific, other than to say that human intelligence gathered mostly by Afghan security forces was a key factor, and the FBI also “played a very important role,” he said.
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment, .but the engineer said that five or six days after he was kidnapped, his wife returned to the U.S., where she worked closely with the FBI.
Planning the rescue
Meanwhile, at a base in Afghanistan, the task force was planning an operation to free the American captive. But although hostage rescue falls squarely within the mission profile of the units that comprised the task force, any operation to liberate him promised to be extremely demanding.
“Although these men are combat-tested and have executed literally hundreds of kill/capture missions, hostage rescue is completely different,” the special operations officer said. “The pucker factor is significantly higher.”
Surrounded by “treacherous terrain,” the kidnappers’ location represented the most challenging aspect of the rescue mission, he said.
But the rugged remoteness of their hideaway appears to have led to fatal overconfidence among the American’s kidnappers.
“He had captors who thought we wouldn’t be able to deal with that terrain,” the special operations officer said.
That, the officer added, was a mistake. Seven years of experience in Afghanistan have enabled U.S. special operators to adapt to the unforgiving landscape.
“The terrain is really not a challenge any more,” he said. “It slows you down, but it slows them down, too.”
Nevertheless, the kidnappers apparently felt secure enough in their mountain lair to stay put for an extended period, rather than move their captive every day or two.
The “˜gold nugget’
This meant that unlike many similar situations in the past, the “gold nugget of information” regarding the hostage’s whereabouts did not quickly become outdated, said a civilian source familiar with the operation.
“The intel remained current for a more-than-expected amount of time,” allowing the task force time to plan the rescue, the civilian source said.
The element of surprise would prove critical.
As night fell Oct. 14, three Chinook helicopters flew into the mountains and inserted roughly 24 to 30 special operators — most of them Navy SEALs — about three miles from the kidnappers’ hideout to minimize the chance of being seen or heard.
As midnight came and went, the operators climbed slowly toward the objective for 4Â½ hours. At that altitude, the special operations officer said, “You can’t exactly exert yourself too much or you’ll be spent.” The commandos ascended 2,000 feet before pausing roughly 275 yards from the target.
There they established an objective rally point — typically, the site where a spec ops force stows unnecessary gear and puts security teams out while those making the final approach to the target transform into “pure assault mode,” said a source familiar with such missions.
From the ORP, an assault force of seven operators — all or almost all SEALs, according to the special operations officer — crept toward the objective.
Swift and sure
One of the commandos tossed a pebble against the hut’s tin door — a traditional way visitors announce their arrival in rural Afghanistan.
The rattle of the stone against the door failed to rouse the guards. “They were both zipped up inside their sleeping bags, sleeping,” one behind the hostage on the floor of the darkened hut and the other outside, the engineer said. But their prisoner was awake and suddenly alert.
“I heard the latch rattling and somebody came in,” he said. “The first guy came in with a LED light, and I just presumed that somebody was coming to visit. I didn’t think of it anymore until the second guy came in and I saw the silhouette of the first fellow. Then I knew it was U.S. mil that was coming in. I don’t know how many guys actually came into the room, but it was soon filled up, and it was soon obvious that I was being rescued.
“I don’t know what I said in English, but whatever I said I said it rather loudly evidently, because they said “˜Quiet!’ “
The hostage’s aim was to quickly let the operators know who he was, but he understood their unease at the level of volume. “Sound carries so far, and they’d worked so hard to come down quietly across the mountain, and here I am shouting,” he said.
Nevertheless, “They knew who was who,” the engineer said. the SEALs quickly demonstrated that, aiming their silencer-equipped weapons to shoot and kill the kidnapper in the room before he could fire a round. The engineer said he heard the sounds of the operators shooting and killing a guard posted outside.
The SEALs turned to the now former hostage and told him they were there to take him back.
“I was in favor of that, 100 percent,” he said. “I was very surprised, very amazed and very happy.”
It was about 3 a.m. The operators and the newly liberated hostage began walking to the pick-up zone.
“Because of not having much exercise, I was doing OK, but I wasn’t doing good by their standards,” the engineer said.
“They saw a place that was wide enough to come down in with a helicopter and drop a cable down for me,” the engineer said.
But, the special operations officer said, bringing a Chinook to a hover at 8,000 feet at night in blackout conditions was “not an easy task” and was a testament to the aircrew’s skill.
the rescued hostage soon was safely back at the task force’s main base, where the task force gave him a thorough medical evaluation before turning him over to the U.S. Embassy.
Those in the task force were elated. The operation had been a spectacular success. The hostage was rescued unharmed and no friendly forces or non-combatants were hurt.
“It was a huge, huge win,” said the special operations officer, who described the rescue as “a perfect example of interagency cooperation across the board.”
Although the special operations forces had performed superbly, other organizations deserved to share the credit for the mission’s success, he said.
“To attribute the success of this to [special] operators or to a particular unit would be disingenuous,” he said. “They would never have gotten there or have been able to finish this without a whole lot of other people playing a key role.”
Although the task force viewed the mission as “an overwhelming success,” as the special operations officer put it, military sources said U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood did not want to publicize the operation after it was over.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment. But military sources said Wood’s view was that any publicity of Americans taken hostage in Afghanistan, even those who are rescued, encourages “the bad guys” to take more hostages and scares off Americans and other westerners from visiting or working in Afghanistan.
The special operators see the Oct. 15 rescue differently. To them, the fact that U.S. forces were able to rescue an American hostage from a location where the kidnappers felt secure “sends a very clear message to any extremist groups that [kidnapping Americans] will be handled with vigilance and unrelenting persecution,” said the special operations officer.
The kidnappers, he said, “paid a pretty heavy price for trying to pull in some money.”