The Complex

Hagel: ISIS Is More Dangerous Than al Qaeda

U.S. military operations in Iraq may be limited for now, but the rhetoric in Washington is heating up.

On Thursday, it boiled over at the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel painted a new and more dangerous picture of the threat that the Islamic State poses to Americans and U.S. interests.

The group "is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group," Hagel said in response to a question about whether the Islamic State posed a similar threat to the United States as al Qaeda did before Sept. 11, 2001.

"They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They're tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we've seen," Hagel said, adding that "the sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country."

Hagel's comments added to the mismatch between the Obama administration's increasingly aggressive rhetoric and its current game plan for how to take on the group in Iraq and Syria, which so far involves limited airstrikes and some military assistance to the Kurdish and Iraqi forces fighting the militants. It has also requested from Congress $500 million to arm moderate rebel factions in Syria. But for now, the United States is not interested in an Iraqi offer to let U.S. fighter jets operate out of Iraqi air bases.

On Tuesday, the Islamic State released a video that showed the beheading of James Foley, an American journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012. It was the first known attack by the group against an American.

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

On Thursday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, also speaking at the Pentagon, said the group does pose an immediate threat to the West in the form of the hundreds of European and American fighters who have fought with the group in Iraq and Syria and could return to their home countries to attack.

Previously, Dempsey described the threat posed by the Islamic State as regional, but with the potential to become a "trans-regional and global threat."

On Thursday, Dempsey said that to deter the group, it will require addressing "the part of the organization that resides in Syria."

Dempsey said he uses the name ISIS for the group because it reminds him that its long-term vision is "the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and al-Sham includes Lebanon, the current state of Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait."

"If they were to achieve that vision, it would fundamentally alter the face of the Middle East and create a security environment that would certainly threaten us in many ways," Dempsey said.

Hagel's comments cap a week of escalating rhetoric from senior administration officials, from President Barack Obama on down.

On Tuesday, in response to the Foley video, Secretary of State John Kerry said "ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed."

Obama, speaking Wednesday in response to Foley's death, said, "From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread."

Obama's most recent assessments of the group's strength stood in stark contrast to his portrayal of ISIS, and other terrorist groups like it, in an interview with the New Yorker seven months ago. At the time, Obama likened the group to a junior varsity basketball team.

"The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant," Obama said.

Later in the interview, he said, "How we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn't lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into."

Since then, ISIS has conquered broad swaths of both Syria and Iraq, including Mosul, the country's second-largest city, and has begun focusing on governing the territory the group now controls. U.S. intelligence officials say the group is devoting considerable human and financial resources toward keeping essential services like electricity, water, and sewage functioning in their territory. In some areas, they even operate post offices and road-building programs.

Dempsey and Hagel said Thursday that the group's momentum had been disrupted thanks in part to the 89 airstrikes the United States has launched since Aug. 8, but stressed that the group was nowhere close to being defeated.

"It is possible to contain them, but not in perpetuity," Dempsey said. "This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision, which will eventually have to be defeated."

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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