A diplomatic row is brewing after the United States’s “cowboy tactics” to rescue a US citizen saw South African captive Pierre Korkie killed in Yemen, apparently on the eve of his release.
Many aspects of the US official version of events don’t seem to add up.
Although the international relations and co-operation minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, has publicly stated that the US government is not to blame for Korkie’s death, a senior source in the department told the Mail & Guardian the South African government is not impressed with the heavy-handed raid.
“We don’t agree with their cowboy tactics. We prefer negotiations. Korkie would still be alive and back home now,” said the official.
Korkie was abducted by al-Qaeda in Yemen in May last year with his wife Yolande. South African charity Gift of the Givers, which is active in the Middle East country, negotiated Yolande’s release in January this year and had spent 18 months negotiating Korkie’s release, using its contacts among tribal leaders.
But a US raid that was planned separately to rescue Korkie’s cellmate, US photographer Luke Somers, went horribly wrong on Saturday.
Both hostages, and seven other civilians, were killed. A New York Times report published shortly afterwards said that Korkie was to have been released the morning after the US raid, according to Gift of the Givers, which said trucks were on their way with $200 000 in ransom money raised by the family.
But the US has vehemently denied any knowledge that the negotiations were at such an advanced stage, a notion the department of international relations and co-operation official found difficult to believe.
“They knew very well … their intelligence is very good. They just prefer cowboy tactics. Period,” the source said. “It’s a matter we’re taking up through diplomatic channels. While we understand they wanted to free hostages … [they could] at least consult and engage.”
The South African government is compelled to deny any involvement in the negotiations to free Korkie, given the country’s policy not to negotiate with terrorists.
The M&G understands that the South African government was aware of the Gift of the Givers’s negotiations and Korkie’s imminent release. They were not, however, aware of plans by the US to launch a raid.
The departmental official expressed frustration over the US’s failure to consult them before their disastrous operation last week. “How would we have known they were planning a raid? They should have initiated contact based on their plan … We are not sangomas.”
US diplomats have also asserted they did not know that Somers and Korkie were being held together.
Over the past few months Gift of the Givers was regularly quoted in the media about the positive progress of the negotiations. It would have been reasonable to take the charity seriously, given that they had secured Yolande Korkie’s release.
The Americans, however, have been scathing about the charity’s claims and whether they could be relied upon.
“There were countless reports for months,” US ambassador Patrick Gaspard told the M&G. “We had no sense of resolution.”
The M&G understands that the US did not make contact with the charity to ascertain the latest progress of the talks before launching the attack. Gaspard maintained it would not have helped in any event because “Gift of the Givers made a clear statement that they were advised by the hostage takers not to inform anyone”. Nor did they make contact with the South African government, the M&G understands.
US diplomats’ insistence they did not know Korkie was being held with Somers is also puzzling. The US first tried to free Somers on November 26 but al-Qaeda had moved him and other hostages.
It was widely reported weeks before the second rescue attempt that, according to the Yemen defence ministry website, al-Qaeda had moved hostages, “including an American journalist, as well as a Briton and a South African” – presumed to be Korkie – days before that first attempt, which saw eight other hostages freed, though none of them American.
Yemen is a close ally of the US, and it follows that if it had the information that Korkie and Somers were together the US would be aware of it too. But the country’s diplomats have denied any such knowledge.
The M&G understands the US collected extensive information on all foreign hostages in Yemen, and its agents were even familiar with an identifying scar on Korkie’s body.
Yet they appeared to have had little information about his whereabouts and the state of negotiations for his release – in a country where only a handful of foreign hostages were being held by al-Qaeda.
“There is no way they didn’t know,” said the official. “For them to even know the location means they were in touch with the same people [Gift of the Givers] were in touch with.”
President Barack Obama sparked anger when he referred to Korkie as a “nonUS citizen hostage” during an announcement about the raid. US diplomats explained the words were used because Korkie’s nationality was not yet known.
Many South Africans who tweeted about Obama’s choice of wording felt it illustrated a larger cavalier attitude about the value of American lives versus others.
Gaspard maintained, however, that if they had known Korkie was about to be rescued it may have “coloured the thinking” of the US special forces.
Public ransom demand
Shortly before the US rescue bid, al-Qaeda made a public demand for ransom to be paid within three days, threatening to kill Somers if this demand was not met.
But South African diplomats believe the Americans knew and acted anyway to save an American life.
“They were under pressure to act despite the information they had about the status of our negotiations,” said the official.
Gaspard, a charismatic diplomat and close aide to Obama, has been reticent about the matter in mainstream and social media. He has expressed his condolences but was firm in his denial that his government knew Korkie was apparently to have been released.
“The president of the US acted in a moment of crisis to try to save lives,” he told the M&G. “We wish that the attempts had been successful but, at the end of the day, this strengthens the resolve of Americans and South Africa to work in concert against violent extremist organisations.” – Additional reporting by Mmanaledi Mataboge