U.S. special operations forces made a failed attempt early this summer to rescue journalist James Foley and other Americans held hostage in Syria by Islamic extremists after they initially demanded ransom.
The secret mission 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, the White House assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, in a statement yesterday.
The rescue attempt followed a demand to Foley’s employer and family from his captors for $133 million dollars (100 million euros) or the release of unnamed Muslim prisoners, Philip Balboni, president and chief executive of GlobalPost, a news website that hired Foley, said in an e-mail today.
The Islamic State released a video on Aug. 19 of Foley’s beheading, saying in the 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.
U.S. intelligence officials said the rescue effort was undertaken by several dozen troops after American intelligence agencies thought they had found where the hostages were held. When the team landed in Syria, they were fired on by Islamic State fighters and discovered 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 helicopters, fixed-wing and unmanned aircraft, according to a statement by Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
It was “a flawless operation, but the hostages were not there,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters today at the Pentagon.
He said that reflected the uncertainty inherent in intelligence, which “doesn’t come wrapped in a package with a bow. It is mosaic of many pictures, of many factors.”
The administration hadn’t planned to disclose the operation, said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, in a statement. She cited the need to protect the hostages and “operational security.” The administration changed course after news organizations were preparing reports on the matter, she said.
“We had no intention of ever making this public,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters today in Washington.
Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who heads the House Armed Services Committee, called today for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the heads of other agencies to investigate who in the government provided information on the secret raid.
“It is outrageous someone would be so selfish and short-sighted to leak it to the media,” McKeon said in an e-mailed statement. Several news organizations, including McClatchy Newspapers, were first told about the raid by members of Islamic State.
In response to a question, Hayden said today that Obama “submitted a classified report to the Congress within 48 hours of the introduction of our forces into Syria” for the rescue attempt.
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 payments from foreign governments and companies and discourage European nations and Turkey from supporting its opponents in Syria, the officials said. Balboni said the group’s first communication included ransom demands for Foley’s release. The information was shared with the U.S. government, he said.
Although IS still holds hostages from other countries, some French and Spanish hostages in Syria, North Africa and elsewhere have been returned after millions of dollars in ransom money were paid to the group, as well as to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist groups, said two U.S. officials.
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 video of Foley’s beheading, which the White House 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.
Obama said yesterday 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 yesterday. 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. 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.
To contact the reporters on this story: John Walcott in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Lerer in Marthaâs Vineyard at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at firstname.lastname@example.org; Steven Komarow at email@example.com Elizabeth Wasserman, Larry Liebert