WASHINGTON (AP/ABC News) - President Barack Obama sent special operations troops to Syria this summer on a secret mission to rescue American hostages, including journalist James Foley, held by Islamic State extremists, but they did not find them, the Obama administration said Wednesday.
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 forces dropped by aircraft into Syria did not find them at that location and engaged in a firefight with Islamic State militants before departing.
"The U.S. government had what we believed was sufficient intelligence, and when the opportunity presented itself, the president authorized the Department of Defense to move aggressively to recover our citizens," said Lisa Monaco, Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser, in a statement. "Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present."
Officials disclosed the rescue operation a day after the militants released a video showing the beheading of Foley and threatened to kill a second hostage, Steven Sotloff, if U.S. airstrikes against the militants in Iraq continued.
Despite the militants' threats, the U.S. launched a new barrage of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria Wednesday. The Obama administration did not rule out the prospect of a military operation in Syria to bring those responsible for Foley's death to justice.
The disclosure of the rescue mission marks the first time the U.S. has revealed that American military personnel have been on the ground in Syria since a bloody civil war there broke out more than three years ago. Obama has resisted calls to insert the U.S. military in the middle of Syria's war, a cautious approach his critics say has allowed the Islamic State to strengthen there and make gains across the border in Iraq.
A number of militants but no Americans were killed in the firefight in Syria. One American sustained a minor injury when an aircraft was hit, officials said.
"As we have said repeatedly, the United States government is committed to the safety and well-being of its citizens, particularly those suffering in captivity. In this case, we put the best of the United States military in harms' way to try and bring our citizens home," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement Wednesday night. "The United States government uses the full breadth of our military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring people home whenever we can. The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will work tirelessly to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable."
Administration 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. They did say that nearly every branch of the military was involved and that the special forces on the ground were supported from the air by fixed wing, rotary and surveillance aircraft.
Foley Punished for Suspected Escape Plans, Fellow Hostage Says
Before Foley's murder was captured on video and posted online, the journalist once suffered “brutal punishment” because his captors believed he was planning to escape, a former fellow hostage told ABC News.
“James was a bit punished for a presumed attempt to escape, but it had no real chance,” French freelance reporter Nicolas Henin told ABC News, after saying he once attempted to escape himself but was caught after wandering in the Syrian countryside for a few hours.
Henin said Foley was met with “brutal punishment” inspired both by his captor’s suspicions and, as Henin put it, “the American war on terror.” Out of respect for Foley’s parents, Benin declined to provide details about Foley’s punishment.
Henin said he was captured last year and held by Islamic State militants for 10 months – seven of which he spent alongside Foley before being released this April. He didn’t say exactly when the violent incident with Foley took place, but it was while Henin was also in captivity.
Henin said that for him, watching the video of Foley's death was “extremely shocking” because he so easily could have been in Foley’s place.
“For instance, the shoes that he was wearing when he was taken to this place in the desert, I wore them. We had few shoes that we were using to go to the bathroom and we were sharing them,” Henin said.
Foley, Henin said, was always optimistic about his chances of being freed.
In Foley’s last moments, when hope must have run out, Henin also recognized Foley’s bravery in the video.
“That is someone, I mean, a real man,” Henin said. “Many people would’ve freaked out and [been] terrified because he knew very well what was going to happen to him… But [he] was still standing up, looking forward and speaking with a clear voice.”