ISTANBUL — For 18 months, a group of civilians in South Africa worked to accomplish what their government had been unable to do: negotiate the release of a South African couple held by al-Qaida in the lawless desert of southern Yemen.
In January, the civilian negotiators succeeded in securing the release of the woman, Yolande Korkie. And in recent weeks, they received confirmation that the terrorist group had agreed to free her husband, Pierre Korkie, in return for a $200,000 ransom. On Saturday morning, a convoy of cars was set to leave the southern Yemeni city of Aden to pick up the 54-year-old hostage from the remote outpost where he was being held.
At 6 a.m. in Johannesburg, Imtiaz Sooliman, director of the aid group that had led the long effort, sent a text message to Yolande Korkie: “The waiting is almost over.”
At 8:03 a.m. Sooliman’s phone rang with incomprehensible news: Korkie was dead.
Hours before his expected release, the South African hostage was killed by his al-Qaida guards when a military operation by the United States to save his cellmate – Luke Somers, an American photojournalist – went wrong. Somers and eight civilians were also killed in the raid.
U.S. officials say they did not know Korkie was about to be freed, revealing the dangerous disconnect that can occur when civilians are left to negotiate hostage releases on their own. The government of South Africa -like the United States – hews to a strict policy of not paying ransoms to terrorist groups holding their citizens, maintaining that payments encourage kidnappers and perpetuate the problem.
Yet as kidnapping for ransom has turned into a lucrative business for al-Qaida and its more extreme offshoot, the Islamic State, an increasing number of Westerners have been abducted. Frustrated by what they see as passive responses from their governments, the families and colleagues of hostages have been thrust into the role of amateur negotiators, initiating contact with the terrorists themselves.
That role proved to be nerve-racking for Yolande Korkie and the South African charity trying to free her husband, who went to Yemen as a teacher.
“The night before, I spent hours on the phone with Yolande to try to calm her down,” said Sooliman, who heads the charity, Gift of the Givers, that runs humanitarian projects in eight countries, including Yemen. “I told her, ‘I’ll call you the moment Pierre is in our hands,’” he said. “She went to sleep with that good feeling in her heart.”
Unbeknown to them, a risky nighttime raid was already in progress in Yemen. President Barack Obama gave the go-ahead for a unit of Navy SEAL Team 6 commandos to attempt to rescue Somers after concluding that his life was in imminent danger, because a deadline that his captors had set to meet their demands was about to expire. Just as Yolande Korkie was trying to fall asleep at her home in Bloemfontein, South Africa, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor planes were sweeping toward a darkened village in rural Yemen.
It remains unclear what went wrong. Soon after the commandos reached the compound where the hostages were being held, gunfire erupted. Both Korkie and Somers were shot by their guards before the commandos could get to them.
Korkie had been dead for several hours when Yolande Korkie awoke Saturday and resumed texting with Sooliman, organizing the final details of her husband’s release.
Those planning the U.S. operation had no indication that the South African hostage was about to be freed, they said.
“We were not aware in advance about any release plans for other hostages,” a U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss the delicate operation, said shortly after the failed rescue mission. “That was not part of our planning.”
Gift of the Givers had not informed Yemeni officials or the United States of the planned release because their al-Qaida contacts had warned them to keep the plans confidential, Sooliman said. It remains unclear whether the South African government – which said in a statement that it had been working with Gift of the Givers and had “undertaken numerous initiatives” to try to free Korkie – had informed the United States or Yemen about his imminent release.
In addition to not paying ransoms, unlike some countries in Europe whose officials have secretly funneled tens of millions of dollars to free their citizens, South Africa and the United States, do not engage in other ways with the terror groups holding their citizens. A prisoner exchange that led to the release of an American soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, was different, U.S. officials say, because special laws apply to prisoners of war and because the Taliban, which was holding Bergdahl, had not been designated as a terrorist organization.
Gregory D. Johnsen, the author of a book on al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen who was nearly kidnapped on the same street in Sanaa where Somers was abducted last year, said he was troubled by the United States’ approach.
“When the U.S. unilaterally takes all the other options off the table and leaves itself with only the military option, then if that goes wrong, the results can be tragic,” he said. “There are a lot of different ways to negotiate even without paying ransom. It calls for innovative diplomacy.”
Sooliman said Gifts of the Givers felt a moral obligation to help the Korkies – fellow South Africans in harm’s way in a country where the charity had deep ties. Although he said the South African government had helped with diplomatic hurdles – such as issuing Korkie a new passport – its policy of non-engagement meant that the charity was on its own in contacting the terrorist group.
A South African government spokesman, Nelson Kgwete, said in a text message: “We do not, under any circumstances, pay ransom.” He did not answer further questions about what else the country had done to help Korkie.
Using its tribal connections in southern Yemen, Gift of the Givers contacted the kidnappers last year.
More than seven months after her abduction on May 27, 2013, al-Qaida released Yolande Korkie in January without requiring a ransom. They refused to let her husband go, demanding $3 million for him and saying that releasing him without payment would set a bad precedent.
“They said they would not be able to waive the ransom for Pierre, because ‘if we do it for you, then we will have to do it for everyone,’” Sooliman said.
After months of silence, Gift of the Givers had a breakthrough in August, when tribal leaders sent a delegation, acting on behalf of the charity, into the remote badlands. The assembled al-Qaida fighters took a vote on reducing the ransom, and half the jihadists voted “yes” while half voted “no,” Sooliman said. In October, the abductors said they would accept $700,000. The family, which had said it could not afford $3 million, still did not have enough money.
In November, the tribal leaders went back to meet with al-Qaida members. The car was hit by a drone strike, killing the mediators, according to Sooliman.
“We thought it was over,” he said.
That’s when I got the call. I said, ‘How can Pierre be dead?’
But that tragedy appears to have spurred al-Qaida to agree to a lower sum, which it promised to use in part to reimburse families of the dead tribal negotiators. On Nov. 26, Korkie’s abductors sent word they would accept $200,000, to be split with the tribe members.
By Saturday, the money raised by Yolande Korkie from friends and other donors had been delivered to Yemen. The cars were preparing to leave.
“That’s when I got the call. I said, ‘How can Pierre be dead?’” Sooliman said. “They are going now!”
The cash was not delivered and will be returned, he said.
Korkie’s body is due to be transported to South Africa on Monday. His remains will arrive at roughly the same time that Korkie was expected to be reunited with his family.
With files from Eric Schmitt and Kareem Fahim, New York Times