President Barack Obama sent special operations troops to Syria this summer on a secret mission to rescue American hostages, including journalist James Foley, held by Islamic State extremists, but they did not find them, the administration disclosed on Wednesday.
Officials said the rescue mission was authorized after intelligence agencies believed they had identified the location inside Syria where the hostages were being held. But the several dozen special operations forces dropped by aircraft into Syria did not find them at that location and engaged in a firefight with Islamic State militants before departing, killing several militants. No Americans died but one sustained a minor injury when an aircraft was hit.
“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,” said Lisa Monaco, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, in a statement. “Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present.”
The administration revealed the rescue operation a day after the militants released a video showing the beheading of Foley and threatened to kill a second hostage, Steven Sotloff, if U.S. airstrikes against the militants in Iraq continued.
Despite the militants’ threats, the U.S. launched a new barrage of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Wednesday. The Obama administration did not rule out the prospect of a military operation in Syria to bring those responsible for Foley’s death to justice.
The disclosure of the rescue mission marks the first time the U.S. has revealed that American military personnel have been on the ground in Syria since a bloody civil war there broke out more than three years ago. Obama has resisted calls to insert the U.S. military in the middle of Syria’s war, a cautious approach his critics say has allowed the Islamic State to strengthen there and make gains across the border in Iraq.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the administration never intended to disclose the operation. But she said the U.S. went public with it Wednesday because a number of media outlets were preparing to report on the operation and the administration “would have no choice but to acknowledge it.”