Several dozen U.S. special forces troops flew into Syria last month in a bid to rescue several Americans held by the Islamic State, including journalist James Foley, but they pulled out after discovering that the captives had been moved, senior U.S. officials said Wednesday.
One U.S. soldier was wounded.
The raid, which took place over the July Fourth weekend, is the first known instance of U.S. troops entering Syria since the brutal civil war erupted there in 2011. The disclosure offered insight into how much intelligence the United States had gathered on the whereabouts of Foley and the undisclosed number of other Americans held by the Islamic State.
According to an account provided to McClatchy by an Islamic State operative, the raid targeted a militant base in northern Raqqa province named Camp Osama bin Laden and left five militants dead and many others wounded.
The Obama administration disclosed the raid a day after the Islamic State posted an online video showing Foley, 40, a freelance photojournalist from Rochester, N.H., being beheaded in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes launched this month against the extremists in northern Iraq. Militants warned other killings would follow.
President Barack Obama authorized the U.S. operation after intelligence pinpointed the location of the prisoners, senior administration officials said in a briefing to reporters. The briefing was held after McClatchy and several other news organizations learned of the raid and began asking Pentagon officials for details.
“The president authorized action at this time because it was the national security team’s assessment that these hostages were in danger with each passing day,” Lisa Monaco, an assistant national security adviser, said in a statement issued by the White House. “The U.S. government had what we believed was sufficient intelligence.”
The raiding force comprised members from nearly every U.S. military service and was supported by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft and surveillance aircraft. The force flew into the site on helicopters, conducted a search on foot and then left after discovering that the hostages were no longer there, the officials said.
The U.S. force came under fire as it flew out and shot back. One special forces soldier was injured aboard a departing aircraft, said the senior administration officials, who declined to be identified under the ground rules for the briefing.
“We do believe that there were a good number of ISIL casualties,” one senior administration official said, referring to the Islamic State.
The senior administration officials declined to disclose how long the raiders were on the ground or where the operation took place.
Many experts believe that Foley and other foreigners were being held in northern Syria, large parts of which were overrun in 2013 by the Islamic State. The al-Qaida spinoff established its headquarters in Raqqa, the provincial capital of a Syrian province of the same name, and used it as a springboard for the lightning offensive it launched in Iraq in June.
The U.S. disclosure corroborated an account provided to McClatchy by the Islamic State operative, who declined to be identified.
The operative contacted a McClatchy correspondent based in Turkey. He said that helicopter-borne American forces had flown into the al Ikairsha area of Raqqa province and stormed the Islamic State base.
The Islamic State viewed the attack as “strange” and saw it as the start of a “sacred war” between the group and “the grandchildren of apes and pigs,” he said, referring to passages in the Quran.
There may have been a second U.S. attack that same day, this one a missile strike on an Islamic State base in eastern Syria, according to an exiled Syrian journalist.
In the video showing Foley’s execution, a masked, black-clad Islamic State fighter, speaking in what appeared to be British-accented English, threatened to kill a second U.S. freelance journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff of Miami, unless Obama halted the U.S. airstrikes on the group’s units in neighboring Iraq.
In defiance of that threat, U.S. forces launched 14 new airstrikes against the Islamic State on Wednesday. European leaders, meanwhile, moved toward a more aggressive stand.
Obama stressed that U.S. airstrikes would continue, and he indicated that the United States would pursue Foley’s killers.
“When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done. And we act against ISIL, standing alongside others,” he said
Obama said that he’d spoken to Foley’s family in New Hampshire, telling them, “We are all heartbroken at their loss.”
Foley’s grieving parents spoke with reporters for more than an hour outside their home, telling reporters their son had wanted to “bear witness to all the suffering.”
“He had an incredible heart and he always cared about people who were suffering – and that’s why he went back,” said his mother, Diane Foley.
Foley’s father, John, said he asked Obama to “do whatever he could possibly do” to save the lives of Sotloff and others being held.
“It haunts me, how much pain he was in and how cruel this method of execution is,” his father said. “He was courageous to the end. ... We believe he was a martyr for freedom.”
Foley was taken prisoner in northern Syria in November 2012 while on assignment for the Global Post, an online news site. Sotloff, who wrote for Time magazine, the Christian Science Monitor and other publications, disappeared last August.
Until the video of his death was posted Tuesday, there were signs that Foley was alive. Philip Balboni, the CEO of Global Post, told NBC News on Wednesday that there had been requests for a ransom, but no funds were paid as it is illegal under U.S. law to give money to a terrorist group.
Former European captives of the Islamic State, who reportedly were released in exchange for ransoms, said they saw Foley during their captivity.
“I had never spoken publicly ... because the kidnappers had threatened us before leaving with retaliation against the remaining hostages,” Didier Francois, one of four French journalists released in April, told Europe 1 on Wednesday.