The Complex

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. 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.

EPA/Nicole Tung/Courtesy of Global Post

The Complex

Foley's Executioner Likely British National

Evidence is mounting that the man who executed American journalist James Foley is a British national fighting under the banner of the Islamic State.

According to BBC Radio, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that the masked man in the video was likely a British citizen.

"On the face of it, it appears to have been a British person. We'll have to do some more analysis to make quite certain that that is the case," Hammond said. "There are significant numbers of British nationals in Syria, increasingly in Iraq" who pose a "direct threat to our own national security. It just is one more example in a catalog of brutality by this organization," he added.

Hammond also suggested that the video is genuine -- something the United States would later confirm -- and that British authorities are trying to identify who the man is. "All the hallmarks point to [the video] being genuine. We're very concerned by the apparent fact that the murderer in question is British, and we are urgently investigating -- agencies on both sides of the Atlantic -- are first of all looking to authenticate the video, to make sure that it is genuine, and sadly it appears to be, and then to see if we can identify the individual in question."

The Guardian also reported that a former hostage of the Islamic State identified Foley's murderer as the ringleader of two other Brits who are guarding foreign nationals in Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold in Syria. The newspaper reported that the executioner called himself John and was the lead negotiator in talks earlier this year to release 11 hostages of the Sunni militant group.

The executioner was "intelligent, educated and a devout believer in radical Islamic teachings," the Guardian reported, based on what the former hostage told the publication. Hostages referred to the group as "the Beatles" because of the group members' nationality, the former hostage said.

The CIA declined to comment on the report. British intelligence services also did not comment.

News that the executioner is British comes a week after pro-Islamic State groups distributed propaganda on London's streets praising the militants. The flag of the group formerly known as ISIS was also flown over a housing estate in East London.

Barack Obama's administration did not comment on the executioner but confirmed the video's authenticity. The U.S. president was visibly angry when he discussed the beheading Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 20, but did not specify what actions the United States would take -- if any -- in the wake of it.

"The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people," Obama said from Martha's Vineyard, where he's vacationing. "We will be vigilant and we will be relentless."

A few hours later, the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon might deploy up to 300 additional troops to Iraq, though in what capacity was unknown. The United States continued targeting Islamic State fighters with airstrikes Wednesday, despite the terrorists' threat to kill another American journalist.

Meanwhile, more details emerged about Foley, 40, who worked for GlobalPost, Agence France-Presse, and other outlets.

According to GlobalPost, Foley came to journalism as a second career. He also covered the war in Syria, where he was abducted on Nov. 22, 2012. Foley earned his bachelor's degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee and graduated in 1996, according to the university's alumni magazine.

In an article published in 2011 recounting his time as a prisoner in Libya, Foley said his faith helped him survive and thanked Marquette's Catholic community for its prayers.

"It showed tremendous heart and was just a glimpse of the efforts and prayers people were pouring forth," he said of a prayer vigil held for him while a prisoner. "If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn't make sense, but faith did."

Photo by ARIS MESSINIS