Saving Americans held hostage by Hamas is a daunting task, ex-CIA official says. Why?

Over 100 people, including children, were taken hostage by Hamas militants during their unprecedented and bloody invasion of southern Israel, according to the Israeli government.

Among the captives are an unknown number of American citizens, around 20 of whom are currently unaccounted for in the region, according to White House officials.

To recover the hostages — whose exact whereabouts and conditions are unknown — Israeli officials, with the assistance of the American government, have two options, both of which would be “extremely difficult,” John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA, told McClatchy News.

‘Stealthy’ extraction

“The first path, of course, is recovering them through special operations,” McLaughlin, who had a three-decade-long career at the CIA, said.

But a number of factors make extracting the captives — who are believed to be somewhere in the Gaza Strip, a seaside Palestinian territory the size of Detroit — implausible.

“They’re in the most densely populated spot on Earth that is itself in the midst of a violent military operation,” McLaughlin said. “So going in there in some stealthy way to grab people and get them out is more complicated — perhaps not impossible — but is dramatically more complicated than any other situation I can think of when I think back to hostage rescue efforts.”

Hamas, the Islamic militant organization that rules Gaza, a labyrinthian metropolis populated by 2.1 million people, nearly half of whom are children, has infrastructure throughout the territory and could be holding captives in a number of places. Further complicating things is the Israeli military’s besieging and bombarding of the strip, which has killed over 1,000 people and injured some 5,339 more, according to Palestinian health officials. It’s conceivable that hostages were among those killed in the airstrikes.

“Typically you know where the hostages are in broad terms, and you have avenues of approach that can be managed to a degree,” McLaughlin said. “But at this point, without access to classified data, I don’t know and I doubt anyone knows with confidence where they are.”

It’s also possible, if not likely, that they’ve been separated into smaller groups, making any potential rescue effort that much trickier.

Intelligence officials are likely poring over satellite imagery of the area, searching for signs of movement, McLaughlin, now a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said.

“But of course, in Gaza, you have the problem of tunnels,” McLaughlin said. “You can’t yet see through dirt from space.”

Still, tunnel openings are likely visible on satellite imagery, and they could be used, along with other techniques, to map out areas where captives could be held. But this process would undoubtedly be slow.

“It took years to figure out where one guy was: Bin Laden,” McLaughlin said.

Negotiations

The second avenue to secure the hostages would be through diplomacy, McLaughlin said.

“It would be normal in the government setting, in the sit(uation) room for someone to say ‘Should we even think about some channels that could pursue hostage exchanges here?’” McLaughlin said. “Someone should at least be asking that question.”

However, given the levels of hostility and the emotions running “sky high,” it’s unlikely that this is a realistic option in the current moment, McLaughlin said.

The Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog was unambiguous when asked about the possibility of hostage negotiations in an Oct. 9 interview with CNN, saying, “We are not conducting negotiations right now; We are at war.”

“I call on all those who have influence over Hamas to demand unequivocally that Hamas will release all the hostages and will not harm them,” Herzog added.

The siege of Gaza, which has left the strip without access to food, water, electricity and fuel, and been labeled “abhorrent” by the Red Cross, will continue until the hostages are released, Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz said in a statement on X.

In the case of Hamas, it may not be in its best strategic interest to give up captives, McLaughlin said.

The militant group has said it will free the hostages in exchange for the release of 5,200 Palestinian prisoners they say are being held in Israeli jails, according to the Associated Press. They’ve also threatened to kill hostages when Israeli airstrikes hit civilian targets without warning.

“All the incentives on the Hamas side are to hang onto the hostages at this point, both as bargaining tools and ways of inflicting terror, and as human shields,” McLaughlin said.

But, if an Israeli ground invasion were to take place, he said, “then the incentive on the Hamas side will be to bring the whole hostage issue more to the fore.”

Still, it’s extremely difficult to predict exactly what will happen given how dynamic the situation is, McLaughlin said.

“We’re in early days,” McLaughlin said, “We’re in an extremely volatile period now where it’s not much of an exaggeration to say almost anything could happen.”

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