Under the dim light of a quarter moon, a U.S. special operations team skimmed through the night skies above eastern Afghanistan, awaiting final mission approval from President Barrack Obama while speeding toward the objective. The commandos were fast on their way last month to rescue two western hostages held by hostile gunmen.
As the raiders approached their target — a makeshift prison compound — they suddenly were ordered to stand down. The president, who was vacationing on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, did not have time to give the required final go-ahead. He wanted 24 hours to consider the rescue.
A day later, Obama approved the mission. The commandos relaunched. This time, they reached the target — only to find the hostages had been moved four hours prior, said sources with direct knowledge of events.
"We raised hell in that compound," said a security staffer with knowledge of the mission. "We knocked down walls and killed bad guys."
Seven hostile combatants were killed and one injured, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed to American Media Institute. Among its many duties, CENTCOM is the Pentagon's Unified Combatant Command in charge of operations in Afghanistan.
"No civilians were killed or harmed," said Col. John J. Thomas, the CENTCOM director of public affairs. "No U.S. forces were killed or hurt."
The missions took place Aug. 10 and 11, in Afghanistan, Thomas confirmed. He did not address operational details of the rescue missions; but AMI spoke to sources who provided details, some of which CENTCOM confirmed.
The sources are security officials who are privy to the kidnaps and the attempted rescues. They do not work together and are affiliated with different agencies. The sources are not authorized to talk to the press, and spoke to AMI on condition of anonymity.
"We had the hostages within reach," said a source who met face to face with this reporter at a remote dockside setting in the United States to discuss the incident. The source insisted that the meeting be held outdoors and without access to electronic devices.
"The first time we went in, we had to stand down," the source said. "The second time, the hostages were gone. Our special operations team went all that way for nothing."
The special operators aimed to recover two civilians — American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — who were kidnapped Aug. 7, in Afghanistan. The kidnapped men are English teachers at the American University in Kabul.
“We are aware of reports of a U.S. citizen kidnapped in Kabul," a State Department official said. "Due to privacy considerations, we are unable to comment further.”
“The Australian Embassy in Afghanistan has confirmed the kidnapping of an Australian in Kabul, Afghanistan," said a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. "We continue to advise Australians not to travel to Afghanistan because of the extremely dangerous security situation, including the serious threat of kidnapping. Due to privacy and security considerations we will not be commenting further.”
King and Weeks reportedly were snatched off the street around 8 p.m. Kabul time on a Sunday. Four assailants wearing what appeared to be official uniforms smashed a window to the teachers' vehicle and pulled them from their car at gunpoint. A driver and a guard, both inside the vehicle during the incident on Dar-ul-Aman Road, were not captured, and were later questioned by police.
The kidnappings unfolded in Afghanistan shortly after President Obama and his family began an extended seaside vacation in Massachusetts.
Some 90 minutes after Weeks and King were captured, the president arrived at the Farm Neck Golf Club on Martha's Vineyard, according to White House press pool reports. As the hostages were spirited away by their abductors and authorities in Afghanistan scrambled to find them, Obama teed off at the semi-private course that bills itself as offering "an idyllic setting" for golf. The president’s golf partners were Chris Paul, Cy Walker and Joe Paulsen, according to pool reports.
Over the course of the next two weeks, the Obamas enjoyed a holiday marked by trips to the beach, dinners with friends, and — for the president — round after round of golf.
"The hostages didn't have the luxury of time," said an official with knowledge of the events. "The president was on vacation. How could he not find time to approve this mission?"
Some 6,500 miles away in Afghanistan, meanwhile, efforts were underway to recover King and Weeks.
"Everybody that had the ability to rescue them was trying to find them and be in a position to rescue them," said one security source.
The mission was led by U.S. special operations. Central Command was reticent in describing which troops participated.
"Units involved in the rescue were trained for just such missions," Col. Thomas said.
Similar missions previously have involved groups like the Navy SEALs, the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the Army unit commonly known as Delta Force.
Other agencies were brought into the mix.
"The CIA was asked to help, and it was given," a source said.
A CIA spokesperson, as is the agency’s custom in matters of this kind, declined to comment.
"It was a big event," the security source said. "It was a big, major effort. A lot of people were involved."
The mission proceeded, with U.S. forces in the air and headed toward the objective.
"The rescue was in motion," the security source said.
The mission needed only one more thing: the final go-ahead from the president, authorizing the rescuers to execute. In one ready room, the radio crackled to life. Instead of delivering the expected verbal green light, though, the voice on the radio gave other news:
"'The president can't make time on his schedule to give the go-ahead,'" the security source said.
The vacationing president wanted to push the mission back 24 hours, the source said. The commandos peeled off, and returned to base. Col. Thomas declined to say where the base was located, or what it was named.
One day later, President Obama did authorize a rescue mission, and the operators relaunched. This time, the raiders arrived on target at a compound in eastern Afghanistan.
"We assaulted the compound," the security source said. "We knocked down walls. It was a high-profile breach."
For more than an hour, the special operators fought inside the compound, engaging in small arms fire, the source said. The opponents' affiliation is unclear.
"We suspected they were holding a U.S. hostage, and therefore they were hostile," Thomas said. At least nine were in the compound, he said.
The commandos asked people on scene: "Where are King and Weeks?"
The answer: the hostages had been moved four hours prior.
"Gone," the security source said. "Vanished."
The captives' whereabouts are unknown. The teachers still could be in Afghanistan, or across the border in Pakistan. Recovery is particularly daunting because of the region, experts said.
"The security environment in Afghanistan remains volatile," said Richard G. Olson, the U.S Government's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), in December testimony before the Senate.
The country continues to plunge into lawlessness, one regional expert told AMI.
The Afghan government is not able to stanch the decline, said Christine Fair, a security studies professor at Georgetown University.
"With NATO’s retrenched presence and limited role, it cannot do much either," Fair said.
A major issue continues to be the power dynamic within the Taliban, according to a policy analyst who specializes in the region.
The Taliban in Afghanistan consists of a loose alliance of factions, said Stephen Biddle, a senior defense policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Of all of these, the Haqqani is the most lethal," Biddle told AMI.
The Haqqani faction previously held American soldier Bowe Bergdahl after he walked away from his Army unit in Afghanistan. The Haqqanis are believed to have taken part in kidnapping King and Weeks, though it is not clear whether they continue to hold the missing teachers.
"Humans are essentially ATM machines," Fair said. "[Captors] don’t actually keep the hostages. They snatch them and then sell them to whatever terrorist organization is willing to pay the most, whether it be the Taliban or some faction thereof."
Custodial captors can take hostages to any number of places.
"They have sanctuaries in Pakistan where they can keep the victims, and the Pakistani state patronizes this group as part of the menagerie of 'good terrorists' who work in alignment with the interests of the Pakistani state," Fair said.
The Pakistani Embassy did not respond to queries from AMI.
Hostage rescues long have been a delicate balance of intelligence and timing. During the Vietnam War, American commandos raided a POW camp in order to rescue dozens of prisoners held captive by communist soldiers near Son Tay in North Vietnam. The rescuers arrived on Nov. 21, 1970, only to find that the prisoners had been moved from the camp.
The Son Tay raid serves as an ominous precursor to recent attempts to rescue King and Weeks.
"We had the teachers the first time," the security source said. "We knew where they were. We were closing in. The White House screwed it up bad."
Other than the confirmation from CENTCOM that the missions took place, other government agencies declined to comment.
The White House deflected questions on the situation overall.
When queried, the White House first directed this reporter to the State Department, then deflected to another department when pressed about the president’s authority as commander in chief of the armed services.
"Talk to the Defense Department," national security press officer Mark Stroh told AMI.
The Pentagon directed queries to CENTCOM. The FBI confirmed receipt of an initial query, but provided no details.
"This mission demonstrates our willingness to take whatever means necessary to try to protect and secure the safety of American citizens anywhere in the world," Thomas said. "That is the umbrella reason we attempted this rescue."
The U.S. government last year reorganized its overall handling of Americans taken captive overseas.
The White House formed, in June 2015 a dedicated interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell. The entity consists of specialists from the FBI, departments of Defense, State, Treasury and other agencies.
At the time, President Obama spoke of his dedication to rescuing Americans held captive abroad. “My message to every American being held hostage and to their families is that we will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens," Obama said.