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Details Emerge On American Commando Raid In Yemen


This week in Yemen, American commandos flew through the night, hiked in the dark and arrived at a remote mountain cave full of al-Qaida militants. The plan was to rescue hostages, including an American journalist, but the American wasn't there. Instead, the Special Forces, along with Yemeni troops, killed seven militants and rescued eight hostages from other countries - Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. Reporter Eric Schmitt revealed the details of the raid in The New York Times and joins us now. Welcome.

ERIC SCHMITT: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Begin by explaining more about what the military was trying to do in this mission and what actually happened.

SCHMITT: What the U.S. military was trying to do in this mission was recover an American citizen - a journalist on the ground there - as well as a couple of other Westerners. What they ended up getting were the hostages that you indicated. The U.S. was implored to go ahead with this raid about two weeks ago by the president of Yemen, President Hadi, who is a very close ally of the United States, but has been under siege, really under a lot of pressure, from a Shiite rebel group that's come down from the north. And so the United States, in addition to wanting, obviously, to get a U.S. citizen back, wanted to help an important ally, who's facing troubles at home.

SHAPIRO: There are some details of this raid that you've withheld at the request of the U.S. government. What can you tell us about that?

SCHMITT: Well, The New York Times initially withheld the fact that the target, I mean, one of the main targets of this raid was an American journalist. This was at the request of the administration. They felt publicizing that fact might jeopardize his security and make it harder for him to be rescued in the future.

But the day after we ran our story, the Yemeni government actually put out a public account of what happened, according to a counterterrorism soldier who participated on the mission. They acknowledged that there was an American journalist who had been moved earlier, so at that point, The Times felt they could publish the fact that the journalist had been taken. The New York Times is still, however, withholding that journalist's name.

SHAPIRO: This is not the only high-profile, failed attempt to rescue an American hostage by U.S. Special Forces. How does this incident fit into the larger issue of hostage rescues by the U.S.?

SCHMITT: Well, the most prominent one, of course, was in early July when U.S. commandos also tried to rescue some of the American hostages who'd been seized in Syria. In that instance, they landed in a very complicated mission. It was out in the eastern part of Syria, now controlled by the Islamic State, and they were on the ground for a couple of hours searching for these Americans, who had also been moved apparently sometime before this raid took place.

And, Ari, I think what it underscores is just how difficult these missions are based on very fleeting intelligence oftentimes, where the U.S. does not have operatives on the ground or satellite imagery. And spy planes only can produce so much information, and you basically have to go on the best information you can. And in that instance, and apparently here, that information was imperfect.

SHAPIRO: And finally, Eric Schmitt, what do you think the most important consequence of this raid this week in Yemen is likely to be?

SCHMITT: Well, I think obviously what it underscores is that there are still Westerners out there who are being held hostage by militant groups, not just in Syria, which has unfortunately been the highest profile with several of the Americans and Brits having been beheaded by the Islamic State captors. But Americans are at risk around the world and in many of these different countries. And it's going to put the American military, in this case special operations commandos, on the spot even more as they try to recover them.

SHAPIRO: That's New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt, who wrote this week about the U.S. Special Forces raid in Yemen to rescue hostages there. Thanks very much.

SCHMITT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.