U.S. special operations forces made a failed attempt to rescue James Foley and other Americans held hostage by Islamic extremists in Syria earlier this summer, the White House said in a statement.
The secret operation was authorized by President Barack Obama after the administration’s national security team concluded that the hostages “were in danger with each passing day,” said Lisa Monaco, Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, in the statement today.
The Islamic State yesterday released a video of Foley’s beheading, saying in an Internet posting that he was executed as a result of U.S. airstrikes against the group in Iraq that began earlier this month. It is unclear when Foley was killed.
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U.S. intelligence officials said the rescue mission was undertaken by several dozen troops after American intelligence agencies thought they had located where the hostages were held. When the team landed in Syria, they were fired on by Islamic State fighters and found that the hostages had been moved, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified mission.
Some of the extremists were killed, and one American was wounded when an aircraft carrying members of the team was hit by ground fire, the officials said.
The rescue attempt included rotary, fixed-wing and unmanned aircraft, said a statement by Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. The White House statement didn’t specify when or where the mission took place, citing “the need to protect our military’s operational capabilities.”
The administration hadn’t planned to disclose the operation, said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, in a statement released tonight. She cited the need to protect the hostages and “operational security.” The administration changed course today after news organizations were preparing reports on the matter, she said.
The intelligence officials said multiple streams of communications, surveillance and other information indicates that Islamic State militants are holding two dozen or more foreign hostages, including American reporter Steven Sotloff, whom the group in the video of Foley’s beheading threatened to kill if U.S. airstrikes continue.
IS previously had been using hostages to extort ransom money from foreign governments and companies and discourage European nations and Turkey from supporting its opponents in Syria, the officials said.
Now the extremists are using the hostages in an attempt to halt airstrikes such as those that helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces retake Iraq’s largest dam.
The graphic terrorist video of Foley’s beheading, which the White House today confirmed as authentic, shows the American reading a statement blaming Obama for the airstrikes before he was killed. Sotloff is shown at the end of the video.
“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” a black-masked militant with a British accent says in the video.
Sotloff, who is from Miami, worked as a journalist in Libya and speaks fluent Arabic, according to a former colleague. He was kidnapped near Aleppo, Syria, on Aug. 4, 2013, and has reported for publications including Time magazine and the Christian Science Monitor.
Social-networking companies including Twitter Inc. (TWTR:US) worked to remove the video from their sites.
“We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them,” Dick Costolo, chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Twitter, said in a posting.
Obama said today that Foley’s beheading won’t deter him from continuing the air campaign aimed at halting further extremist advances in Iraq.
“The entire world is appalled” and must “extract this cancer so that it does not spread,” he said from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where he and his family are vacationing.
U.S. aircraft struck Islamic State vehicles and equipment near the Mosul Dam, the U.S. Central Command said in a news release today. The Obama administration also is considering sending about 300 additional troops to augment security at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, according to the Pentagon.
In London, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said in a BBC interview that, “We will stick to the foreign policy and the very clear strategy that we have,” including ensuring that Iraqi Kurds fighting the Islamic State have the arms they need.
The video of Foley’s murder risks backfiring in Iraq, and may help Obama make a case for an expanded offensive against IS militants, said John Nagl, a former Army commander in Iraq who helped write a counterinsurgency field manual for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.
If it’s confirmed that Foley was murdered in Syria, his execution also could enable Obama to launch American airstrikes in that country, where IS has carved out an area to regroup, train and re-equip, said two U.S. military officials today. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration policy issues.
“These guys are not making smart choices,” Nagl, a board member of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said in an interview.
The video won’t appeal to many Iraqi Sunnis, and may help spur a new Sunni Awakening against the Islamic State, he said, referring to the battle some U.S.-backed Iraqi Sunni tribes fought against al-Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor group.
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