John Foley, father of slain journalist James Foley, breaks down while talking to reporters in Rochester. (AP)
Edgartown, Aug. 21: A secret nighttime military mission authorised by President Barack Obama to rescue Americans held captive in Syria failed early this summer when a team of two dozen Delta Force commandos raided an oil refinery in the northern part of the country but found after a firefight with militants that there were no hostages to be saved, administration officials have said.
The officials — speaking a day after the Islamic State posted a video showing American journalist James Foley being beheaded — described what they called a “complicated operation” in which the commandos were dropped by helicopter into Syrian territory in an attempt to rescue Foley and others being held by the Sunni militant group.
The army commandos fought their way to the spot where they believed that the militants were hiding the hostages, the officials said. But when the team swooped in, the hostages were gone. “We’re not sure why they were moved,” a defence department official said. “By the time we got there, it was too late.” The official said it may have been “a matter of hours, perhaps a day or two” since the hostages had been there.
One of the American commandos was slightly wounded in the skirmish, which lasted several minutes before American aircraft flew the soldiers to safety. At least one of the aircraft came under fire, but all members of the team were evacuated successfully. The administration officials said they believed a number of the terrorists were killed.
The officials revealed the mission in a conference call with reporters, in which they spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the operation. It was the first time that the United States government had acknowledged that American forces had operated inside Syria since the civil war there began.
Two defence department officials, who spoke separately on the condition of anonymity because of the operation’s delicate nature, expressed anger at the administration for revealing the mission. One of the officials said the aborted raid had alerted the militants to the Americans’ desire and willingness to try to rescue the hostages, and, in the aftermath, had probably forced the captors to tighten their security.
But, the official said, the conference call yesterday revealed new details that Islamic State is not likely to have known. “This only makes our job harder,” the official said. “I’m very disappointed this was released. We knew any second operation would be a lot harder.”
Caitlin Hayden, the National Security Council spokeswoman, said the administration had “never intended to disclose this operation” but had felt that its hand was forced by news media outlets that were preparing to report on the mission.
Lisa Monaco, the President’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, said that Obama approved the mission because intelligence officials feared for the hostages’ lives.
Intelligence is not “an exact science,” the officials in the conference call said, describing a “layered procedure” in which the agencies built a picture of where they thought the hostages might be.
“It builds over time,” one senior administration official said. “We never lost sight of the plight of these hostages.”
The administration has kept in touch with the family members of the Americans during the years that they have been held captive and “consistently and regularly informed” them of the efforts to find the hostages, the officials said.
Families have been informed of the latest rescue attempt, the officials said, but did not say when they were told.