American freed from Yemen was held by criminal gang, according to secret report

A kidnapped American whose release was heralded today in a tweet by President Trump had been held by a criminal group in Yemen, according to a classified local report reviewed by Yahoo News.

Danny Burch, who worked for the Yemeni Safer oil company, was abducted in the fall of 2017 in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa. Little had been known about his case, which remained largely out of public view until, on Monday, Trump sent out a tweet announcing that Burch had been recovered and thanked the United Arab Emirates for its support.

Yemen has been involved in a protracted civil war since 2014, when Houthi rebels took over the capital and large swaths of the country. With U.S. support, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015, escalating a conflict that is blamed for thousands of civilian deaths.

The United States has justified its support for the Saudi coalition based on the ongoing war on al-Qaida and on terrorism.

But it appears that Burch’s kidnapping had little to do with the war or terrorism, and instead involved a criminal gang, according to a secret report issued by a security department under Houthi control and obtained by Yahoo News.

The kidnapping of foreigners by criminal gangs for ransom has a long history in Yemen, but has subsided in recent years, primarily because the war has driven the vast majority of foreigners out of the country. Burch, who has a Yemeni wife and was a long-time resident of the country, was among a dwindling band of Westerners there.

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Women walk past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa, Yemen February 6, 2017. Picture taken February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
A picture taken on February 8, 2017 shows the minaret of a mosque in the historic quarter of the capital Sanaa. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemenis walk in the old city of the capital Sanaa on February 8, 2017. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A Yemeni craftsman sits in his workshop at a market in the old city of the capital Sanaa on February 8, 2017. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemenis walk past stalls at a market in the old city of Sanaa on February 8, 2017. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni women walk along a road between old buildings in the old city of Sanaa on February 8, 2017. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemenis walk past stalls at a market in the old city of Sanaa on February 8, 2017. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemenis women shop at a stall at a market in the old city of Sanaa on February 8, 2017. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A Yemeni craftsman sits at his shop selling traditional Yemeni daggers known as 'Jambia' at a popular market in the old city of the capital, Sanaa, on February 8, 2017. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A Yemeni craftsman shapes metal at his workshop at a market in the old city of the capital Sanaa on February 8, 2017. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni craftsman shape metal in a workshop at a market in the old city of the capital Sanaa on February 8, 2017. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemenis walk past stalls at a market in the old city of Sanaa on February 8, 2017. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Women walk past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa, Yemen February 6, 2017. Picture taken February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
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The Yemeni security service report, dated Sept. 23, 2017, and titled "abduction of a foreigner," says that four armed men kidnapped Burch in front of a restaurant on a main street in Sanaa. The report states that “reasons and motivations” of the kidnapping “are unknown."

A Sept. 30 update to the report states that the security service had determined that Burch had been taken by a prominent gang based in Yemen’s Marib province, an anti-Houthi stronghold, and was being held there.

A local source in Marib confirmed the report’s finding to Yahoo News, saying that he was told by affiliates of the gang leader about the kidnapping the day it took place.

Among the details that remain unclear is why it took more than a year to free Burch from Marib, which has been largely under Saudi and UAE control. It’s also unclear how the UAE facilitated the release, whether through negotiations, ransom or military action on its own, or in conjunction with the U.S. armed forces.

“We’re not talking anything about it,” said a spokesman at U.S. Central Command, who referred questions to the State Department. The State Department, however, was similarly tight-lipped about the circumstances of Burch’s release, other than to credit the UAE.

“We are grateful for the assistance of the United Arab Emirates in gaining Mr. Burch’s freedom,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email. “Their assistance was crucial in securing his release.”

The UAE Embassy in Washington confirmed in a tweet that its government played a role in recovering Burch. “The UAE is pleased to have been able to assist the US in facilitating Mr. Burch’s release,” the tweet said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also tweeted about Burch’s recovery, giving credit to the UAE, the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert C. O’Brien and the U.S. government’s hostage recovery fusion cell. “The safety of Americans is a high priority” of the Trump administration, Pompeo said in his tweet.

A Pentagon spokesperson did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment.

The Trump administration said Burch’s release underscored its commitment to securing the release of American hostages. With Burch’s recovery, “we have now secured freedom for 20 American captives since my election victory,” the White House said in a statement.

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