U.S. Special Forces Tried and Failed to Rescue James Foley

Nearly two years into James Foley’s captivity at the hands of Islamist militants and shortly before his execution, U.S. Special Forces troops attempted to free the American journalist and a group of other American hostages. That operation failed when the captives were not to be found where U.S. intelligence assessments had indicated they would be. ...

EPA/Nicole Tung/Courtesy of Global Post
EPA/Nicole Tung/Courtesy of Global Post
EPA/Nicole Tung/Courtesy of Global Post

Nearly two years into James Foley's captivity at the hands of Islamist militants and shortly before his execution, U.S. Special Forces troops attempted to free the American journalist and a group of other American hostages. That operation failed when the captives were not to be found where U.S. intelligence assessments had indicated they would be. On Tuesday, Islamic State militants released a video depicting Foley's beheading.

Details on the nature of the unsuccessful operation remained sparse late Wednesday. When American forces landed in eastern Syria -- most likely in Raqqa province, where Foley is thought to have been held and killed -- they came under heavy fire. The elite troops killed a number of militants, and one of the pilots involved in the operation sustained a minor injury when his aircraft came under fire, a senior administration official told Foreign Policy.

According to a defense official with knowledge of the situation, the operation occurred in early July. The same official added that the operation was based mostly on human intelligence -- as opposed to satellite photographs and intercepted communications -- and the military now believes the hostages had been moved from that location just days before the raid took place.

Nearly two years into James Foley’s captivity at the hands of Islamist militants and shortly before his execution, U.S. Special Forces troops attempted to free the American journalist and a group of other American hostages. That operation failed when the captives were not to be found where U.S. intelligence assessments had indicated they would be. On Tuesday, Islamic State militants released a video depicting Foley’s beheading.

Details on the nature of the unsuccessful operation remained sparse late Wednesday. When American forces landed in eastern Syria — most likely in Raqqa province, where Foley is thought to have been held and killed — they came under heavy fire. The elite troops killed a number of militants, and one of the pilots involved in the operation sustained a minor injury when his aircraft came under fire, a senior administration official told Foreign Policy.

According to a defense official with knowledge of the situation, the operation occurred in early July. The same official added that the operation was based mostly on human intelligence — as opposed to satellite photographs and intercepted communications — and the military now believes the hostages had been moved from that location just days before the raid took place.

The helicopters used in the raid were flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, an elite group known as the "Night Stalkers" and which typically ferries commandos affiliated with the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and the Navy SEALs. The operation included both fixed and rotary wing aircraft, surveillance aircraft, and involved virtually every branch of the military, according to the administration official. A senior defense official told Foreign Policy that several dozen Special Operations troops were involved in the raid.

It remains unclear how many hostages U.S. forces were attempting to rescue, and American officials didn’t reveal the identities  of any of the raid’s targets besides Foley.

"The United States government is committed to the safety and well-being of its citizens, particularly those suffering in captivity," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement. "In this case, we put the best of the United States military in harms’ way to try and bring our citizens home."

On the heels of Foley’s brutal killing, questions have been raised about to whether the U.S. government should have done more to secure his freedom, and Wednesday’s revelations, first delivered in a briefing to reporters assembled at Martha’s Vineyard where President Obama is vacationing, may be part of an effort by the White House to fire back at its critics. However, according to the New York Times, officials decided to brief reporters on the operation when an unspecified news organization was about to reveal its existence. That organization was the Washington Post, according to people familiar with the matter.

According to a defense official, a few reporters started asking about the operation in Syria after it took place, but did not know the nature of it. Once they were made aware that it was a hostage rescue mission, they were asked not to publish because it could put the hostages’ lives at risk. With Foley’s death, they moved to publish, spurring the White House to go public.

Earlier Wednesday, Obama condemned Foley’s murder and said he would do everything in his power to bring his killer to justice. "No faith teaches people to massacre innocents," a visibly angered Obama said during a brief appearance while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard. "No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by people who build and not destroy."

In the video depicting Foley’s execution, a masked militant speaking with a British accent also brandished the American journalist Steven Sotloff before the camera and threatened to kill him if American airstrikes in Iraq directed at Islamic State militants continued.

American officials have said that they will not accede to demands to halt airstrikes, and, if anything, are only considering stepping up their intensity. On Wednesday, the U.S. military said it carried out 14 airstrikes in northern Iraq. In total, U.S. forces have delivered 84 airstrikes in support of Iraqi operations against Islamic State.

That posture is sure to raise questions about Sotloff’s fate. While European governments have frequently paid handsome ransoms to secure the freedom of their captured citizens, the United States has steadfastly refused to do so. The discrepancy between American and European policy has been cited as a possible contributing factor in Foley’s death. Europeans who were held captive alongside Foley have been set free, while he has remained in captivity for more than two years.

–Yochi Dreazen contributed to this report.

Twitter: @EliasGroll
Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.