United States military forces attempted to rescue journalist James Foley and other American hostages during a secret mission into Syria earlier this summer. During the attempt, U.S. forces exchanged gunfire with Islamic State militants only to discover the captives were not there, officials said on Wednesday.
News of the mission came a day after a video surfaced showing an Islamic State militant beheading the 40-year-old Foley.
Officials would not say exactly when the operation took place but said it was not in the last couple of weeks. U.S. special forces and other military personnel, backed up by helicopters and planes, dropped into the target zone in Syria and engaged in a firefight with Islamic State militants.
The incident, in which a number of militants were killed, appeared to be the first direct ground engagement between the United States and Islamic State militants, who Obama sees as a growing threat in the Middle East.
Lisa Monaco, Obama's top counter terrorism aide, said in a statement that Obama authorized the mission because it was his national security team's assessment that the hostages were in danger with each passing day.
"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. Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present," said Monaco.
Among the hostages sought in the mission was Steven Sotloff, the American journalist who was threatened with beheading in the same video that showed the grisly execution of Foley. Several other captives were also sought, a senior administration official said.
The families of the hostages were informed about the operation "but only when it was operationally safe to do so," a senior administration official said.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the mission was focused on a "particular captor network" within the Islamic State militant group. He did not provide specifics.
"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," he said.
He added: "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."
OBAMA: 'ISIL SPEAKS FOR NO RELIGION'
Earlier Wednesday, before news of the failed rescue mission were released, President Obama condemned the execution of Foley and vowed the United States would do what it must to protect its citizens.
Not long after Obama spoke, the Pentagon said U.S. aircraft conducted 14 air strikes in the vicinity of Iraq's Mosul Dam, destroying or damaging militants' Humvees, trucks and explosives.
"The whole world is appalled by the brutal murder of James Foley," Obama said during the press conference.
Obama said he called Foley's family to express his condolences.
The president spoke strongly, almost angrily, calling the Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS, depending on translation) a "cancer" with a "bankrupt" ideology and saying he was praying for Foley's family and the families of other Americans currently held against their will.
"Let’s be clear about ISIL," the president opened. "They have rampaged across cities and villages, killing innocent unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’a, by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can, for no other reason than they practice another religion. They declare their ambition to commit genocide against an ancient people."
"So, ISIL speaks for no religion ... No faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day."
Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would "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," Kerry said in a statement.
'Relentless' hunt for the killer
"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," said President Obama. "When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what's necessary to see that justice is done."
British anti-terrorist 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 Islamic State, who authorities say pose a security threat to U.S. 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 United States, Islamic State's 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 U.N. Security Council and regional countries, including Arab states and Iran, to coordinate action against Islamic State. President Francois Hollande called for an international conference to discuss how to tackle the group.
U.N. 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," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari urged the world to back his country against Islamic State, 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 Islamic State 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.
The video's message was unambiguous, warning of greater retaliation to come against Americans following nearly two weeks of U.S. airstrikes that have pounded militant positions and halted the advance of Islamic State, which until this month had captured a third of Iraq with little resistance.
Foley was kidnapped on Nov. 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 organizations.
Journalism community reacts
Northwestern University, where Foley recieved a masters degree in journalism, in 2008, released a statement saying the "Medill family is shocked and deeply saddened by the news of the murder of James Foley."
"Journalists face threats in many forms as they try to report difficult stories that need to be told, but the attack on Jim was barbaric," Northwestern said in a statement. "It was, in a larger sense, an attack on freedoms necessary in a civilized society and across strained cultures. Jim endures for us as a beacon reminding us of the risks implicit in shedding light where inhumanity can take hold."
Foley, 40, was working in Syria for GlobalPost when he disappeared on Thanksgiving Day, 2012.
While attending Medill, Foley worked as a language arts teacher at the Cook County Sheriff’s boot camp program for four or five years, said Cara Smith, executive director of the Cook County Jail.
“He was a passionate and dedicated teacher in our boot camp,” Smith said. The program is an alternative to a state prison sentence.
“He was fluent in Spanish and was able to connect with our Spanish-speaking boot camp participants,” Smith said. “He believed passionately in education and its ability to reduce recidivism.”
Foley, a native of New Hampshire, reported about conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, where he was held captive for 44 days.
After his release in Libya in 2011, Foley returned to Medill for an event in which he was interviewed by Tim McNulty, a Medill lecturer and former Chicago Tribune associate managing editor. Foley emphasized the importance of informing Americans about conflicts overseas.
“'Conflict journalism' is very important. ... We need to know that most of the world is a dictatorship,” Foley said. “Most of the world, you cannot speak your mind. Most of the world, there’s no due process. Being away from the U.S. for a long time in these places, it really got knocked into me this time, man. We live in a pretty good place.”
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 U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that approximately 20 journalists are currently missing in Syria. Many of them are believed to be held by Islamic State.
Reuters and Chicago Tribune staff