WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Barack Obama sent U.S. troops to Syria earlier this summer to rescue a number of Americans held by a violent extremist group, including slain journalist James Foley, but did not find the hostages, senior Obama administration officials said Wednesday.
The officials said the rescue mission was authorized after intelligence agencies believed they had identified the location inside Syria where the hostages were being held. But the several dozen special operations troops who were dropped by aircraft into Syria did not find them and engaged in a firefight with Islamic State militants before departing.
The officials said a number of militants but no Americans were killed. One American sustained a minor injury when an aircraft was hit, according to the officials, who described the mission under ground rules that they not be identified. They did so one day after the militants released a video showing the beheading of Foley and threatening to kill a second hostage, Steven Sotloff, if U.S. airstrikes against the militants in Iraq continued.
The officials would not say specifically when or where the operation took place, citing the need to protect operational details in order to preserve the ability to carry out future rescue missions.
Meanwhile Wednesday, Obama spoke about Foley’s murder by the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – also called ISIS or ISIL. Obama called Foley’s death “an act of violence that shocks the conscience of the entire world.”
In a horrifying act of revenge for U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, militants with the Islamic State extremist group beheaded Foley — and are threatening to kill another hostage, U.S. officials said.
“Jim was a journalist, a son, a brother, and a friend. He reported from difficult and dangerous places, bearing witness to the lives of people a world away,” the president said.
U.S. officials confirmed a grisly video released Tuesday showing Islamic State militants beheading Foley. Separately, Foley’s family confirmed his death in a statement posted on a Facebook page that was created to rally support for his release, saying they “have never been prouder of him.”
Ahead of his statement, Obama called Foley’s family to express his condolences.
“Earlier today I spoke to the Foleys and told them that we are all heartbroken at their loss and join them in honoring Jim and all that he did,” Obama said. “He was 40 years old, one of five siblings, the son of a mom and dad who worked tirelessly for his release.”
Foley’s parents stepped before cameras Wednesday to share their pain with the world and reflect on the life their son lived, CBS 2’s Dick Brennan reported.
“Jim believed in our country, a great country. Jim was a great American,” said his mother Diane Foley.
“How much he affected the world he lived in in such a positive way,” said Foley’s grief stricken father John Foley.
“So we’re truly humbled that Jim was our son,” Diane Foley added. “We are so, so proud of Jim. Jim gave joy to the world.”
Foley, from Rochester, New Hampshire, went missing in northern Syria in November 2012 while freelancing for Agence France-Presse and the Boston-based media company GlobalPost. The car he was riding in was stopped by four militants in a contested battle zone that both Sunni rebel fighters and government forces were trying to control. He had not been heard from since.
Previously, Foley had been detained while working in Libya, and spoke on CBS about the experience, Brennan reported.
“Well we were going out to report on what was actually happening on the front lines, Foley said in the interview. “It’s very important in this kind of work to see if what the rebels are saying they’re doing is actually true.”
The beheading marks the first time the Islamic State has killed an American citizen since the Syrian conflict broke out in March 2011, upping the stakes in an increasingly chaotic and multi-layered war.
“Jim Foley’s life stands in stark contrast to his killers. Let’s be clear about ISIL they have rampaged across cities and villages killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence,” the president said. “ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents, no just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day.”
Obama said the United States will continue to confront Islamic State extremists despite Foley’s death. Since the video was released, the U.S. military has pressed ahead by conducting nearly a dozen airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq.
“The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless,” Obama said. “When people harm Americans anywhere we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done and we act against ISIL, standing alongside others.”
The White House must now balance the risks of adopting an aggressive policy to destroy the Islamic State against resisting any action that could result in the death of another American.
The killing is likely to complicate U.S. involvement in Iraq and the Obama administration’s efforts to contain the group as it expands in both Iraq and Syria.
Calling the Islamic State a cancer, Obama forcefully condemned the group that seized territory in Iraq and Syria, and he called for a vigilant, relentless and global effort to curtail an organization he said is torturing, raping and murdering thousands of people.
“Their ideology is bankrupt. They may claim out of expediency that they’re at war with the United States or the west but the fact is they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their empty vision and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior, Obama said.
“People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy, and the world is shaped by people like Jim Foley and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him.”
The group is the heir apparent of the militancy known as al-Qaida in Iraq, which beheaded many of its victims, including American businessman Nicholas Berg in 2004.
The video released on websites Tuesday appears to show the increasing sophistication of the Islamic State group’s media unit and begins with scenes of Obama explaining his decision to order airstrikes.
It then cuts to a balding man in an orange jumpsuit kneeling in the desert, next to a black-clad militant with a knife to his throat. Foley’s name appears in both English and Arabic graphics on screen. After the captive speaks, the masked man is shown apparently beginning to cut at his neck; the video fades to black before the beheading is completed. The next shot appears to show the captive lying dead. The video appears to have been shot in an arid area; there is no vegetation to be seen and the horizon is in the distance where the sand meets the gray-blue sky.
At the end of the video, a militant shows a second man, who was identified as another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, and warns that he could be the next captive killed. Sotloff was kidnapped near the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013; he had freelanced for Time, the National Interest and MediaLine.
The militant in the video speaks with a British accent, Brennan reported. Experts say many foreign fighters have gone to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, and could pose a long-term threat to the U.S. and its allies.
Several senior U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the situation said the Islamic State very recently threatened to kill Foley to avenge the crushing airstrikes over the past two weeks against militants advancing on Mount Sinjar, the Mosul dam and the Kurdish capital of Irbil.
Both areas are in northern Iraq, which has become a key front for the Islamic State as its fighters travel to and from Syria.
Senators from Foley’s home state of New Hampshire condemned the killing.
“His murder was a cowardly act of terrorism and underscores the threat that ISIL poses to the freedoms we hold dear,” said Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte went further, calling for the Islamic State’s destruction. “This barbaric and heinous act shocks the conscience and highlights the truly evil nature of the terrorists we confront, who must be defeated,” she said.
Other Republican hawks echoed that message, and some questioned Obama’s resolve.
“The United States must not cower to these terrorists’ ruthless demands by remaining on the sidelines,” said Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., a House Intelligence Committee member and former Army officer.
“ISIL has declared war on the United States, on the American people and on freedom loving people everywhere,” added Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., accusing the group of “murdering civilians, raping women and young girls and enslaving them, and carrying out a systematic genocide of anyone who does not share their warped and extremist Islamist views.”
Obama, he lamented, has been “unwilling to do what is necessary to confront ISIL.”
On Wednesday, President Obama said the U.S. will continue to confront hateful terrorism and “replace it with a sense of hope and civility.”
“Today the American people will all say a prayer for those who loved Jim. All of us feel the ache of his absence, all of us mourn his loss…” Obama said.
Obama spoke from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where he’s vacationing with his family, a day after the militants released the video featuring Foley.
Since Aug. 8, there have been at least 77 U.S. airstrikes in Iraq on Islamic State targets — including security checkpoints, vehicles and weapons caches. It’s not clear how many militants have been killed in the strikes, although it’s likely that some were.
Tuesday’s airstrikes by American fighter jets and drones centered on targets around the Mosul Dam and were designed to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces create a buffer zone at the key facility, according to a U.S. official. The official was not authorized to discuss the ongoing operations publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
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