ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Last night, just moments before President Obama gave his State of the Union address, he stopped to greet his defense secretary. The microphones captured the president saying this to Leon Panetta.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Leon, good job tonight. Good job tonight.
SIEGEL: Good job tonight. Well, now we know what the president was talking about. Earlier in the day, U.S. commandos had rescued two hostage aid workers in Somalia. One of the hostages is an American.
NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been looking into this story and joins us with more details. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Robert.
SIEGEL: The commandos, I gather, came from SEAL Team 6, the same unit that killed Osama bin Laden. How did it carry out this operation?
BOWMAN: Well, it's the same unit that killed Osama bin Laden, but not the same individuals. This time, more than a couple of dozen SEAL Team 6 members came in by C-130 aircraft. They parachuted in, and they assaulted an encampment in northern Somalia. We're told that shots were fired, and they killed nine Somali men. And then, they saved the two hostages. The American is Jessica Buchanan. She's 32 and from Virginia. And her colleague, a 60-year-old man from Denmark. Then the whole group loaded onto helicopters, and they went back to Djibouti, where the U.S. took off from initially.
SIEGEL: Now, I gather the hostages - Ms. Buchanan and the Danish man - worked for an aid group. What were they actually doing in Somalia?
BOWMAN: Right. They're working for this Danish organization that disables landmines. Somalia, of course, is covered with landmines. After all, there's been fighting there now for decades. So they would help remove the landmines. And also, Jessica Buchanan and her colleague also helped with refugees along the border with Kenya. They were abducted last October. And we're told that President Obama and other senior officials were kept abreast of their situation, getting updates over the months.
SIEGEL: Tom, what do you know and what can you tell us about the timing of this operation? Why now?
BOWMAN: Well, we're told within the last week this whole thing really ramped up, Robert. And there are two reasons for that. First of all, the U.S. had intercepts of communications, maybe a cell phone, maybe a radio that indicated Jessica Buchanan's health was deteriorating rapidly. She apparently was on medications. We don't know if she was running out of her medicines or not, but they knew they had to move quickly. Second thing was what they call actionable intelligence, which pinpointed exactly where she was being held, this encampment in northern Somalia.
SIEGEL: And what do we know about the people who were actually holding them hostage?
BOWMAN: Well, we don't know too much. The Pentagon is calling them common criminals. At first, they were calling them pirates, but now they're just calling them criminals. We, of course, have seen a lot of piracy in Somalia lately from everything, from attacks on cruise ships to attacks on Iranian fishermen. But in this case, they're just saying common criminals. There's no indication whether they were requesting ransom or not. We have no indication of that. But there's also no sense from Pentagon officials that they had any connection to al-Shabab, the terrorist group with, of course, ties to al-Qaida.
SIEGEL: Did Pentagon officials explained the definition of pirate that these people they say fell outside of?
BOWMAN: Well, I'm not sure. Just because they were land-based they were not considered pirates or not. But, again, they're using term common criminals to describe them.
SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman speaking with us about the rescue of two relief workers by Navy SEALs. They were being held in Somalia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.