The United States sent a team of special operation forces to Syria this summer to try to rescue American journalist James Foley and other hostages held by Islamic militants, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
"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," Lisa Monaco, a top counter-terrorism advisor to President Obama, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present."
Monaco's statement did not name the hostages targeted by the operation or the precise timing, saying only that the attempt occurred "earlier this summer." But an administration official, who did not want to be identified discussing a classified operation, said they included Foley.
The president authorized the mission because the hostages were in danger with each passing day in the hands of Islamic State militants, Monaco's statement said. At least one member of Congress was also briefed.
The unusual acknowledgment of a failed secret raid came the day after a video surfaced online showing the beheading of Foley. U.S. officials said Wednesday that the video posted by Islamic State was authentic, though it was not immediately clear where or when it was filmed.
A masked fighter in the video also threatened to kill another American, Steven Joel Sotloff, who is believed to be held by the group.
A senior administration official said the operation involved a joint force team, with members of each military service. The team was dropped to the ground from helicopters and supported by other aircraft. A “good number” of Islamic State fighters were killed in a firefight, and one U.S. trooper suffered a minor injury when a U.S. aircraft came under fire, said the official, who would not be named discussing the details of the operation.
The official would not detail the precise timing or location of the raid, except to note that the “if this were in a densely populated area — and we’re talking about U.S. forces and airplanes and helicopters — people would have been tweeting about this and it would have gotten out before now.”
The mission was to rescue “several” American hostages, including Foley and Sotloff. Administration officials offered no explanation of why no hostages were found — whether because of bad intelligence or a possible tip in advance. Years into a devastating civil war, much of Syria is racked by violence and remains a difficult environment for collecting intelligence.
The operation was authorized by Obama only after determining there was sufficient intelligence and “confidence in that information,” the official said, noting the considerable risk involved in “sending ground forces into a country we do not go.”
Part of the urgency stemmed from the belief that the hostages were facing increased danger, both because of the length of their captivity and because of intelligence suggesting new risks. The official declined to comment on the specific intelligence, but did say that officials took it as grim sign that the Islamist insurgents released hostages of other nationalities but kept the Americans captive.
With the exception of Foley, those hostages are believed to still be in captivity, the official said.
Word of the operation did spread and forced the White House to disclose the operation.
"We never intended to disclose this operation. An overriding concern for the safety of the hostages and for operational security made it imperative that we preserve as much secrecy as possible," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. "We only went public today when it was clear a number of media outlets were preparing to report on the operation and that we would have no choice but to acknowledge it.”
Foley's family, friends and employer made repeated pleas to find the 40-year-old New Hampshire man and return him to safety.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the remaining hostages’ families and their loved ones during this difficult time. We continue to call for their immediate release," Monaco 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,” Pentagon spokesman 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.”