British-American journalist Luke Somers was paraded in front of cameras in a video released on Thursday by al Qaeda in Yemen, in which the terrorist group threatened to murder the hostage in three days if the US does not meet a series of demands.
In the video, Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), directly addresses the US government, which he says is "aware" of the group's demands. He does not give any further detail, but says that if Washington does not meet the three-day deadline, "the American hostage held by us will meet his inevitable fate."
The commander also rails against US "crimes" in the Muslim world, including American-led airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.
Somers, a dual citizen born in the UK who grew up in the US, was kidnapped in the Yemeni capital Sana'a in September 2013. He had then been living in the country for two years, working as a freelance photojournalist for the Yemen Times, a local English language publication.
Following al-Ansi's statement, the video cuts to show Somers in front of a backdrop of green foliage. He wears a purple shirt and glasses, and his previously longer hair has been shaven. He appears to be in relatively good physical health.
The captive then delivers a plea: "My name is Luke Somers. I'm 33 years old. I was born in England but I carry American citizenship and have lived in America for most of my life. It's now been well over a year since I've been kidnapped in Sana'a. Basically I'm looking for any help that can get me out of this situation. I'm certain that my life is in danger. So as I sit here now, I ask if anything can be done, please let it be done. Thank you very much."
Video via al-Malahem Media
Somers was one of the targets of a November 25 raid by US and Yemeni forces on a mountain cave in the Hajr al-Sayar district of Hadramawt, a remote desert region close to the Saudi border.
The operation freed eight captives — six Yemenis, an Ethiopian, and a Saudi citizen. At the time, early reports suggested a US citizen was among those liberated, but that quickly proved false. Seven al Qaeda fighters were reportedly killed.
A Yemeni official later said that the mission had failed to free five other captives, including an unnamed American journalist and a British citizen who were said to have been transferred to another location days earlier.
Al-Ansi referred to the raid in his statement, branding it the "latest foolish action" by President Barack Obama. He said that an "elite group of mujahedeen" were killed in the "failed operation "and warned the US against such "stupidities" in the future.
Following the release of the AQAP video, the US National Security Council confirmed that the operation — the details of which were previously kept secret — had been aimed at Somers' rescue.
Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokesperson, said in a statement: "Last month, the president authorized an operation to rescue Luke, who has been held hostage by AQAP in Yemen since September 2013, and a number of other hostages. As soon as the US government had reliable intelligence and an operational plan, the president authorized the Department of Defense to conduct an operation to recover Mr. Somers.
"Regrettably, Luke was not present, though hostages of other nationalities were present and were rescued. The mission was coordinated with the Yemeni government and was undertaken by US and Yemeni forces."
She said the raid "should serve as another signal to those who would do us harm that the United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will spare no effort to secure the safe return of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable."
The US military has been heavily involved in the fight against al Qaeda in Yemen, lending support to government forces and carrying out dozens of drone strikes against suspected terrorist operatives. Civilian casualties associated with the strikes have been a source of public anger and anti-American sentiment.
However, it is rare for US troops to intervene on the ground, and their controversial participation in the November raid has never been confirmed by the Yemeni government.
Al Qaeda has a strong presence in the increasingly fractured and lawless country, though Shia Houthi rebels in November pushed them from a key stronghold in central Yemen. Houthis have been waging an insurgency against the country's government and currently control large parts of the capital. However, the two foes have turned allies in the fight against al Qaeda.
AQAP has kidnapped a number of foreigners for ransom, but is not thought to have previously threatened a hostage with execution over US policy in the Middle East. In doing so, the group appears to be emulating the modus operandi of the Islamic State, which has now beheaded five American and British captives, in what the group said was retaliation for US and UK intervention in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has urged Islamist militants around the world to follow its lead in targeting the citizens of foreign countries involved in the international coalition against it.
Some foreign hostages have been released following mediation efforts. However, AP cited a tribal leader in Hagr al-Saiaar as saying he had been told by tribal mediators that US officials had consistently rejected their offers of help with American hostage cases. Another tribal figure said that outreach efforts to Qatar, which often takes a mediatory role in the region, had gone nowhere, the agency reported.
Yemeni authorities also said on Thursday that a local hostage who had been held with Somers had been found dead in the district of al-Qatn in Hadramawt on Wednesday night. Unidentified officials told the AP that the man, Rashid al-Habshi, had apparently confessed to his captors that he had helped US forces in conducting drone strikes against AQAP operatives.
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