SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen threatened an American hostage who was the target of a rescue attempt by U.S. special forces last month, warning Washington in a video released Thursday not to try again, and giving it three days to meet unspecified demands.
"My life is in danger," Luke Somers says in the footage, which appeared to mimic hostage videos released by al-Qaida's rival, the Islamic State group.
It was the first word from the 33-year-old photojournalist since he was snatched from the streets of Sanaa more than a year ago. He had been working for nearly three years in the impoverished Arab nation, "living as a normal Yemeni," friends and colleagues told The Associated Press.
In a video post of their own, Somers' mother and brother said Somers was "only trying to do good things for the Yemeni population" and pleaded with his captors to spare him. "Luke is only a photojournalist and is not responsible for any actions the U.S. government has taken," Somers' brother, Jordan, said in the footage posted on YouTube.
Noting that her son "appears healthy" in his captors' video, Paula Somers said: "We thank you for that. Please show mercy and give us an opportunity to see our Luke again."
In a statement earlier Thursday, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby acknowledged for the first time that a raid last month had sought to rescue Somers but that he turned out not to be at the site.
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan also said President Barack Obama had authorized a rescue operation to free Somers and other hostages but "regrettably, Luke was not present."
In the three-minute video, Somers appears somber and gives a brief statement in English, asking for help.
"It's now been well over a year since I've been kidnapped in Sanaa," Somers says in the footage posted on the al-Qaida offshoot's Twitter account. "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."
Also speaking in the video, a local al-Qaida commander, Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, denounced American "crimes" against the Muslim world, including U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
He condemned the rescue attempt, calling it a "foolish action" and warned against any more such "stupidities." He acknowledged that an "elite group of mujahedeen," or holy warriors, were killed in the operation.
Al-Ansi gave the U.S. three days to meet al-Qaida's demands or "otherwise, the American hostage held by us will meet his inevitable fate." He did not elaborate or explicitly say Somers would be killed.
Al-Ansi did not specify the group's demands but said Washington is "aware" of them.
Kirby did not elaborate on the joint U.S-Yemeni operation to free Somers, saying details remained classified. However, officials said at the time the raid targeted a remote al-Qaida safe haven in a desert region near the Saudi border. Eight captives — including Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian — were freed. Somers, a Briton and four others had been moved days earlier.
Somers was kidnapped in September 2013 as he left a supermarket in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, said Fakhri al-Arashi, chief editor of the National Yemen, where Somers worked as a copy editor and a freelance photographer during the 2011 uprising in Yemen.
"He was ... very friendly, had no enemies," al-Arashi said. "But because he is one of few Americans and Westerners here, he was a target."
Bill Roggio, of the terrorism analysis center the Long War Journal, said he believes the al-Qaida offshoot — known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP — put out the video in reaction to last month's rescue operation.
The group, considered by the U.S. to be the world's most dangerous branch of the terror network, "is aware that the U.S. is now searching for the hostages and it is time for it to play its cards and extract whatever it can for them," he said. "If the U.S. doesn't pay the ransom, AQAP will have to make it clear there is a price to pay."
Other al-Qaida experts and local Yemeni tribal figures suggested that by releasing the video now, al-Qaida may be trying to find a third party, such as Qatar, to work out a deal for Somer's release as it did for at least one previous Westerner. That could mean the militant group is looking to secure a ransom or swap, and the video was a way to put pressure.
However, the video also marked an ominous shift. In other recent abductions, al-Qaida in Yemen did not make such public threats against its captives, which suggests the group could now be mimicking the Islamic State group, its competitor among militant circles that has been trying to make inroads in Yemen and siphon away supporters.
That raised the prospect that al-Qaida is moving toward increasingly brutal tactics to shore up its support in the rivalry with the Islamic State, which has beheaded several American and British hostages, as well as numerous Iraqi and Syrian soldiers, in its sweep across those two countries.
The al-Qaida network was notorious for beheadings in the past — most notably of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and several Americans and a Briton in Iraq in 2004. But in recent years, even while continuing suicide bombings and other attacks, it has stayed away from more bloodthirsty acts.
Al-Qaida is believed to be holding at least three other foreign hostages — a Briton, a South African and a third foreigner thought to be Turkish. In February 2013, a Swiss researcher was released after a year in al-Qaida captivity following months of Qatari mediation.
A Yemeni hostage who had been held captive with Somers was found dead late Wednesday in Hadramawt, the province where the U.S.-Yemeni rescue attempt took place. The captive, Rashid al-Habshi, had appeared in an earlier al-Qaida video making a confession that he had helped U.S. drone strikes.
Al-Qaida's Yemen branch group has been at the forefront of a propaganda war with the Islamic State group, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a "caliphate" in areas of Iraq and Syria under his control and has spoken of expanding it to other countries.
Al-Qaida rejects the unilateral declaration and has criticized the group for its methods. But it faces stiff competition, with many extremists around the Middle East drawn by al-Baghdadi's dramatic successes.
Al-Qaida's Yemen branch — led by Nasser al-Wahishi, a onetime close associate to the network's former leader, Osama bin Laden, — has so far kept its cohesion and has pushed back against Islamic State attempts to gain ground in Yemen.
Last month, al-Qaida in Yemen's top cleric, Sheikh Harith al-Nadhari, warned against expansionism, saying it threatens to drive a wedge among jihadis. "They announced the expansion of their caliphate in a number of countries in which they have no mandate," al-Nadhari said.
Michael reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.