The US military carried out an attempt to rescue journalist James Foley and other American hostages held in Syria, an official said on Wednesday, in an operation that the Pentagon said ultimately failed to find the captives.
Foley (40) was beheaded by an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) militant in a video that surfaced on the internet on Tuesday. President Barack Obama expressed revulsion on Wednesday at the execution, vowing that the US would do what it must to protect its citizens.
The unsuccessful rescue operation “involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within [Isis],” the Pentagon said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location.”
Officials would not say exactly when the operation took place but said it was not in the past couple of weeks.
Obama authorised the mission “earlier this summer,” Obama’s top counterterrorism aide Lisa Monaco said in a separate statement. “The president authorised action at this time because it was the national security team’s assessment that these hostages were in danger with each passing day in [Isis] custody,” she said.
Isis said Foley’s execution, which prompted widespread horror that could push Western powers into further action against the group, was in revenge for US air strikes in Iraq.
The Pentagon said US aircraft conducted 14 air strikes in the vicinity of Iraq’s Mosul Dam, destroying or damaging militants’ Humvees, trucks and explosives.
‘A Message to America’
Britain’s prime minister cut short his vacation as UK intelligence tried to identify Foley’s killer, while France called for international coordination against the Islamist militants fighting in Syria and Iraq.
US officials said on Wednesday that intelligence analysts had concluded that the Isis video, titled “A Message to America”, was authentic. It also showed images of another US journalist, Steven Sotloff, whose fate the group said depends on how the US acts in Iraq.
The gruesome video presented Obama with bleak options that could define US involvement in Iraq and the public reaction to it, potentially dragging him further into a conflict he built much of his presidency on ending.
Obama called the beheading of Foley “an act of violence that shocked the conscience of the entire world” and said the militants had killed innocent civilians, subjected women and children to torture, rape and slavery and targeted Muslims, Christians and religious minorities.
“So [Isis] 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 in brief comments to reporters in Edgartown, Massachusetts, where he has been vacationing. “[Isis] has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt.”
Obama said he had spoken with Foley’s family.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US would “never back down in the face of such evil.
“[Isis] and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable,” Kerry said in a statement.
However, US officials say Obama is unlikely to deepen military involvement in Iraq or Syria and will instead stay the course with US air strikes. Several administration officials said there were no plans to significantly alter the US campaign against Isis militants.
British antiterrorist police began an investigation of the video, in which Foley’s killer spoke with a London accent.
Possibly a British national, the killer is just one of hundreds of European Muslims drawn to join Isis, who authorities say pose a security threat to US and European interests if they return home from the Middle East.
The video showed a high level of technical proficiency and the use of a British voice may have been intended to make its contents clear to audiences in the US, Isis’ declared enemy.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he was not surprised to hear the British accent and that large numbers of British nationals were fighting in Iraq and Syria.
“Our intelligence services will be looking very carefully on both sides of the Atlantic at this video to establish its authenticity, to try to identify the individual concerned and then we will work together to try to locate him,” Hammond told Sky news.
France said it wanted the permanent members of the UN Security Council and regional countries, including Arab states and Iran, to coordinate action against Isis. President Francois Hollande called for an international conference to discuss how to tackle the group.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon condemned “the horrific murder of journalist James Foley, an abominable crime that underscores the campaign of terror the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continues to wage against the people of Iraq and Syria,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari urged the world to back his country against Isis, which he described as a threat to the world, not just to the minority ethnic groups whose members it has killed in Iraq.
Germany and Italy said they were ready to send arms to bolster the military capabilities of Iraqi Kurds fighting Isis in northern Iraq.
Sending arms into conflict zones is a major departure for Germany, which has often shied away from direct involvement in military conflicts since World War II due to its Nazi past.
Interpol chief Ronald Noble on Thursday also condemned the beheading of Foley, calling for a global response to the threat posed by Islamic extremists. “The barbaric murder of James Foley by [Isis] underlines the depths of its depravity as it wages its campaign of terror across Syria and Iraq,” the head of the international police organisation said in a statement.
Given that the executioner appeared to be British, Noble urged a “multilateral response against the terror threat posed by radicalised transnational fighters travelling to conflict zones in the Middle East”.
Meanwhile, the president of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, on Thursday called the actions of Isis militants “embarrassing” to the religion and urged Islamic leaders to unite in tackling extremism.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the scale of the slaughter wrought by the extremists in overrunning large swathes of Iraq and Syria and the level of violence being used was appalling.
“It is shocking. It is becoming out of control,” he said in an interview. “We do not tolerate it, we forbid Isis in Indonesia,” he added.
Warning of greater retaliation
The video’s message was unambiguous, warning of greater retaliation to come against the US following nearly two weeks of US air strikes that have pounded militant positions and halted the advance of Isis, which until this month had captured a third of Iraq with little resistance.
Foley was kidnapped on November 22 2012, in northern Syria, according to GlobalPost. He had earlier been kidnapped and released in Libya.
Sotloff, who appeared at the end of the video, went missing in northern Syria while reporting in July 2013. He has written for Time, among other news organisations.
On Facebook, Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, said: “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.
“We implore the kidnappers to spare the lives of the remaining hostages. Like Jim, they are innocents. They have no control over American government policy in Iraq, Syria or anywhere in the world.”
The video was posted after the US resumed air strikes in Iraq this month for the first time since the end of the US occupation in 2011.
US Senator John McCain, a Republican, said Foley’s death should serve as a turning point for Obama in his deliberations over how to deal with Isis. “First of all, you’ve got to dramatically increase the air strikes. And those air strikes have to be devoted to Syria as well,” McCain said in a telephone interview.
‘War front against Muslims’
Isis, which has declared a caliphate in the parts of Iraq and Syria it controls, opened the video with a clip of Obama saying he had authorised strikes in Iraq.
The words “Obama authorises military operations against the Islamic State effectively placing America upon a slippery slope towards a new war front against Muslims” appeared in English and Arabic on the screen.
It showed black and white aerial footage of air strikes with text saying: “American aggression against the Islamic State”.
A man identified as Foley, head shaven and dressed in an orange outfit similar to uniforms worn by prisoners at the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, is seen kneeling in the desert next to a man holding a knife and clad head to toe in black.
“I call on my friends, family and loved ones to rise up against my real killers, the US government, for what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality,” the kneeling man says.
The man next to him, in a black mask, speaks with a British accent and says, “This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen, of your country. As a government, you have been at the forefront of the aggression towards the Islamic State.”
“Today your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties amongst Muslims. You are no longer fighting an insurgency. We are an Islamic army, and a state that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide.”
Following his statement, he beheads the kneeling man. At the end of the video, words on the side of the screen say: “Steven Joel Sotloff”, as another prisoner in an orange jumpsuit is shown on screen. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the masked man says.
University of Virginia political scholar Larry Sabato said the killing was like the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. He said it could help bolster a perception among Americans that the US will have to be more aggressive in dealing with Isis militants.
Syria has been the most dangerous country for journalists for more than two years. At least 69 other journalists have been killed covering the conflict there, and more than 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that about 20 journalists are currently missing in Syria. Many of them are believed to be held by Isis. – Reuters and AFP