U.S. air, ground forces tried to free hostages in Syria.
EDGARTOWN, Mass. – A secret nighttime military mission authorized by President 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 Islamic militants that there were no hostages to be saved, administration officials said Wednesday.
The officials — speaking a day after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) 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.
Obama said Wednesday that the entire world was “appalled” by the beheading, speaking as American warplanes conducted 14 airstrikes in Iraq and the State Department asked the Pentagon to send as many as 300 more American troops to Iraq for security. “The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people,” he said. “We will be vigilant, and we will be relentless.”
The Army commandos fought their way to the spot where they believed that ISIL was 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 Defense 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 commandos was slightly wounded in the skirmish, which lasted several minutes before U.S. aircraft flew the soldiers to safety. At least one aircraft came under fire, but all members of the team were evacuated successfully. The officials said they believed a number of the terrorists were killed.
Operation was classified
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 the U.S. government had acknowledged that American forces had operated inside Syria since the civil war there began.
Two Defense Department officials 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 rescue the hostages, and, in the aftermath, had probably forced the captors to tighten their security.
But, the official said, the conference call Wednesday revealed new details that ISIL was 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 it.
“An overriding concern for the safety of the hostages and for operational security made it imperative that we preserve as much secrecy as possible,” Hayden said Wednesday.
Lisa Monaco, the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, said that Obama approved the mission because intelligence officials feared for the hostages’ lives.
“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,” Monaco said.
Officials said the administration had kept the mission secret in an attempt to “preserve future opportunities” to conduct another one.
Monaco repeated a call for the immediate release of the hostages and said the failed rescue mission should stand as further evidence of the lengths the United States will go to protect its citizens.
“Their effort should serve as another signal to those who would do us harm that the United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable,” she said.
Few details on hostages
Officials declined to say exactly how many hostages the commandos were trying to rescue or to provide the names of the people who they believed were being held.