SHAFAQNA – U.S. Special Operations forces mounted an unsuccessful mission inside Syria earlier this summer to try to rescue several Americans held by Islamic extremists, including the journalist who was beheaded this week, senior Obama administration officials said.
President Barack Obama ordered the secret operation, the first of its kind by the U.S. inside Syrian territory since the start of the civil war, after the U.S. received intelligence the Americans were being held by the extremist group known as Islamic State at a specific facility in a sparsely populated area inside Syria. Among the group, intelligence agencies believed at the time, was James Foley, the U.S. journalist whose beheading was shown in a grisly video released Tuesday.
The officials declined to say precisely where and when the operation took place. But its disclosure was just the latest of several signs of a toughening American posture toward the extremist forces of Islamic State, a group that Mr. Obama Wednesday labeled a “cancer” on the Middle East.
James Foley’s death highlights the danger for journalists working in repressive countries such as Syria and Iraq. WSJ’s video editor Mark Scheffler and Reporters Without Borders U.S. director Delphine Halgand discuss James Foley and the dangers of war reporting on the News Hub with Sara Murray.
Officials said that several dozen Special Operations forces took part in the helicopter-borne operation as drones and fighter aircraft circled overhead. After landing nearby and approaching the facility by foot, the force came under small-arms fire, to which it responded, the officials said. Several fighters of the Islamic State were killed in the exchange of fire. One member of the special operations forces team was shot and slightly injured, the officials said.
But the U.S. forces didn’t find any of the Americans in the facility and pulled out of the area. “When the opportunity presented itself, the president authorized the Department of Defense to move aggressively to recover our citizens,” Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present.”
The U.S. rescue mission wasn’t coordinated with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a senior U.S. official said.
As the details of the attempted rescue suggest, Mr. Foley wasn’t the only Westerner being held by Islamic State operatives. Approximately 20 journalists are believed to be missing in Syria, with many held by the Islamic State, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Philip Balboni, the president and chief executive of GlobalPost, an online news site Mr. Foley worked for, said Mr. Foley’s captors originally demanded a ransom sum from both the family and GlobalPost of €100 million ($132.5 million). He declined to discuss their reply to the demand. He said all communication was shared with appropriate government authorities.
The disclosure of the dramatic rescue operation came on a day of stern public responses from the Obama administration to the videotaped beheading of Mr. Foley, which Islamic State said was its first answer to recent American bombing runs in Iraq to drive the extremist group’s forces away from a key dam in Mosul.
In a somber public statement, President Obama denounced the beheading of Mr. Foley as the work of “nihilistic” Islamic extremists and called Wednesday for a broadened international campaign to eradicate the group from the Middle East.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his vacation to describe the purported murder of American journalist James Foley as “shocking” and “depraved”. Photo: Associated Press
He also vowed to continue the U.S. air war against them in Iraq, despite threats by the group, commonly known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, to behead more Americans if the strikes continue.
The U.S. would be relentless, he said, in pursuing those who killed Mr. Foley.
“One thing we can all agree on is a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century,” Mr. Obama said from his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. “From governments and people across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread. There has to be a clear rejection of these kind of nihilistic ideologies.”
Propaganda videos by the militant group the Islamic State show people claiming to be Australian, British and even American. And now, the execution of James Foley by a man with a British accent has further heightened fears about the potential for terrorist activity by radicalized Western Muslims returning home.
The president urged allies and partners to join forces to defeat Islamic State fighters who have established a quasi-state that controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Obama’s comments followed release of the video showing an Islamic State militant killing Mr. Foley, who was captured in Syria nearly two years ago, and threatening to kill another U.S. reporter in the group’s hands.
Mr. Obama’s language was much sharper than comments he made in an interview in January, when he compared the group to a high-school basketball team that had neither the talent nor the wherewithal to pose a major global threat.
Islamic State militants released a video Tuesday purporting to show the beheading of American journalist James Foley in an act of retribution for U.S. airstrikes on the group in Iraq, raising new dangers for President Obama’s Middle East policy. WSJ’s Tamer El-Ghobashy has the latest on the News Hub with Simon Constable. Photo: Militant Video
While Mr. Foley’s killing isn’t expected to lead to an immediate shift in U.S. policy in the Middle East, it creates new pressure on Mr. Obama to authorize a wider military campaign to directly confront the Islamic State.
Administration officials said the U.S. wouldn’t be deterred by the group’s threats.
“Make no mistake: We will continue to confront ISIL wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “The world must know that the United States of America will never back down in the face of such evil. ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable.”
Soon after Mr. Obama spoke, the U.S. military announced a new series of airstrikes that hit Islamic State forces near Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest. On Monday, with critical help from American airstrikes, Kurdish and other Iraqi forces routed Islamic State fighters holding the dam.
On Wednesday, U.S. jet fighters and armed drones carried out 14 airstrikes that destroyed Islamic State armored vehicles, hidden bombs and other targets, the military said.
For now, the U.S. is hewing to a narrow set of objectives in Iraq: to protect American military and diplomatic personnel working in the country, and to offer selective help for vulnerable Iraqi communities.
A ribbon is seen on the front door of the family home of journalist James Foley Wednesday. Associated Press
Those elastic goals give the U.S. military considerable leeway to carry out airstrikes across the country. Military officials say the strikes so far have succeeded in blunting the group’s attacks, demoralized the fighters and led some to leave the group. But they have done little to damage the group’s overall danger to the region, military officials said.
That is leading to growing pressure—within the military and in Congress—for the president to authorize a broader fight against the Islamic State.
For weeks, the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees Middle East operations, has advocated a more expansive, near-term air campaign targeting Islamic State commanders, equipment and military positions that U.S. intelligence has pinpointed in Iraq, defense officials said.
“Hunt while the hunting’s good,” one senior defense official said of Central Command’s message to White House and Pentagon policy makers.
Other officials want to limit the strikes until a new Iraqi government is formed in the coming weeks. For now, that view appears to be winning the debate.
Advocates of a more immediately aggressive U.S. approach say targets of opportunity today may no longer be reachable by the time a new government in Baghdad is formed.
The U.S. currently has about 900 military personnel working in Iraq. They are providing security for the U.S. Embassy, helping the Iraqi and Kurdish forces plan their military operations against the Islamic State, and looking at other ways America can help Iraq combat the militant threats.
U.S. officials said on Wednesday that the State Department asked the Pentagon to dispatch 300 more military personnel to the Baghdad area to protect Americans working there, defense officials said.
Mr. Obama’s current airstrike strategy is also geographically limited. The U.S. has no intentions of launching airstrikes in Syria, where the Islamic State controls large parts of the country and has established a de facto capital, U.S. officials say. For now, Syria provides a safe haven for Islamic State forces who are able to return from fighting in Iraq without fear of being hit by U.S. airstrikes. U.S. intelligence has detected some fighters flowing back into Syria after the recent U.S. air attacks.
The president has authorized a new $500 million program to arm and train pro-American Syrian forces that could confront the Islamic State, but that proposal has yet to be approved by Congress, and it isn’t clear if or when lawmakers will back the proposal.
For part of his time in captivity, Mr. Foley was held along with at least two French journalists who were freed in April. One of them, Nicolas Hénin, told Europe 1 radio on Wednesday that Mr. Foley was singled out for particularly brutal treatment because he was American.
President Barack Obama approaches a podium in Edgartown, Mass., on Wednesday. Associated Press
As the Obama administration considers how to respond to the brutal murder of an American, the president must balance deep public reluctance to plunge back into Iraq against new calls to launch a broader offensive against extremists.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Democrats support the president, but are concerned about backing military action with poorly defined objectives.
“It’s going to require vigorous oversight by the Congress to make sure that the administration, despite its best efforts, doesn’t get sucked into a level of commitment that the country isn’t willing to support,” he said.
Mr. Schiff said the military targeting in Iraq is “rapidly getting beyond the narrowly defined mission of protecting Americans and preventing genocide of the Yazidis,” an ethnic group that came under attack this month.
Like Mr. Schiff, Sen. Angus King (I., Maine), said the president should consider asking Congress for specific authorization under the War Powers Act if he plans to expand military attacks in Iraq. Mr. King said the U.S. has to avoid being dragged into a costly confrontation in the Middle East.
“We have to be careful,” he said. “We can’t let it intimidate us and we can’t let it provoke us.”
— Colleen McCain Nelson and Jennifer Levitz contributed to this article.
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