Danny Burch
President Donald Trump meets with Danny Burch, an American who was formerly held hostage in Yemen, at the White House in Washington, March 6, 2019. Image Credit: NYT

Washington: An American hostage who was freed in Yemen in February after nearly 18 months in captivity was rescued in an armed raid led by the United Arab Emirates with help from the United States, according to US and Yemeni officials.

The hostage, Danny Lavone Burch, had been held by a criminal Yemeni gang with a record of kidnapping Westerners for ransom.

The gang was known to sell hostages to a powerful local Al Qaida affiliate, the officials said.

President Donald Trump hosted Burch at the White House on Wednesday, crediting his release as a result of “great help from UAE and all of our friends.”

The president did not provide details, but also said Burch’s rescue was one of “a few negotiations” worldwide to free Americans held captive.

The release of Burch came with great help from UAE. His rescue is one of a few worldwide to rescue American captives.

- Donald Trump, US President

“Gosh, it’s great to be an American,” Burch told a small group of US officials and journalists in the Oval Office.

“This is the end result: a happy man with a happy family,” Trump said.

More than a half-dozen American and Yemeni officials described parts of the rescue operation on condition of anonymity.

Burch was retrieved from a cellar where he was being held in a lawless part of Yemen.

One senior Yemeni official said seven people were arrested in the raid.

There were conflicting accounts of which military force led the raid.

Some officials said it was Emirati special operation forces.

A senior Yemeni official said the raid was coordinated by the UAE but executed by the Hadrami Elite Forces, a Yemeni special operations group that operates under Emirati command.

What was Burch doing in Yemen?

Burch was born in Texas and worked for a Yemeni state oil company.

He had been living in Yemen since the 1990s, converted to Islam and married a Yemeni woman.

He was snatched outside a restaurant in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, in September 2017 as he drove his children to a swimming pool.

A week later, a security agency controlled by Iran-backed Al Houthi rebels who control Sana’a blamed the abduction on a gang led by Ali Nasser Huraiqidan, a tribal criminal notorious for kidnapping foreigners for ransom.

An internal Yemeni report on the kidnapping, which was obtained by The New York Times, was based on the interrogation of two gang members who were said to have returned to Sana’a after driving Burch to Marib, an oil-rich province east of the capital.

Dangerous criminal gang

The report said the kidnappers “represent a dangerous criminal gang involved in kidnapping, road blocking and armed robbery.”

Former US officials said the gang had signaled it wanted millions of dollars for Burch’s safe release.

It was feared, the former officials said, that the gang was going sell Burch to Al Qaida in Yemen.

In recent years, Huraiqidan has been accused of holding a Norwegian aid worker, an Italian diplomat and a German official.

Huraiqidan usually held his victims in Marib, where he lives in a fortified compound. During his captivity, the German official was interviewed by a reporter with a local television channel.

An elderly man in Yemeni clothes, the German appealed to the reporter for his release in broken Arabic, saying he was suffering from cancer.

Also in the interview, a masked Huraiqidan demanded a ransom and threatened to hand the German to Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which American intelligence agencies view as one of the group’s most lethal affiliates.

For much of last year, US officials hoped to negotiate for Burch’s freedom.

CIA played a role

A senior tribesman in Marib said negotiations began last year after two visits to the province by US diplomats, including the United States ambassador to Yemen, Matthew H. Tueller. A State Department spokeswoman in Washington declined to comment.

People familiar with his kidnapping said Burch was moved several times from one heavily guarded compound to another. Any rescue, they said, would have involved a firefight.

One US official said the CIA played a role in the rescue operation but gave no details. US Special Forces were not involved, a second US official said. A spokesman for the United Arab Emirates declined to comment.

The raid was a potentially risky gambit for Trump.

In January 2017, just days into his presidency, Trump ordered a botched US Special Operations raid in Yemen that led to the death of a member of the Navy SEALs, Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens. The dead sailor’s father, Bill Owens, later criticized the operation as “a screw-up from the start that ended badly.”

And in December 2014, an American commando raid failed to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers, who was being held hostage by Al Qaida in southern Yemen.

The kidnappers killed Somers and a South African who was being held with him.

Kidnapping for ransom has for decades been a hazard for foreign visitors to Yemen, where the practice was in many cases just a source of income for criminal or tribal groups.

But in the past decade it has become far more dangerous because of the presence of Al Qaida and Daesh in the war-torn country.

Army Sgt. Maj. Cale Burch, one of Danny Burch’s children from a previous marriage, said the FBI notified him the day before Trump announced that his father had been freed. Cale Burch said he spoke on Friday with his father, who was in the emirates.

“He’s doing great,” said Cale Burch, who was deployed overseas. His father told him that he was not physically abused but suffered a lot of psychological stress.

“I was concerned for his physical safety, but he’s a tough old guy,” the son said. “Our family is really relieved he is safe.”