The gruesome execution of American journalist James Foley came as a shock to many who were following the increasingly horrific situation in Iraq and Syria. The revelation that another journalist, Steven Sotloff, was also a captive of Islamic State militants and may soon meet the same fate was equally surprising for many. Many, that is, except those in the White House.
“ISIS had recently threatened to kill U.S. journalist James Foley to avenge airstrikes the United States has conducted in Iraq, a senior U.S. official told ABC News,” ABC reporters Arlette Saenz and White House correspondent Jonathan Karl reported on Wednesday.
The White House had been aware of the threat prior to the release of a video Tuesday night that appears to show the beheading of Foley and warns that militants will carry out a similar act against U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff, who went missing in August.
President Obama was briefed on the video aboard Air Force One Tuesday night as he returned to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, from Washington to resume his August vacation. The White House said the intelligence community is working to authenticate the gruesome video that allegedly shows Foley’s beheading.
Combined with the unconfirmed revelation that Foley’s killer, an ISIS militant with a pronounced British accent, may have been a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, this is shaping up to be a particularly bad news cycle for the White House
It is entirely reasonable, however, to believe that American officials had no knowledge of either Foley or Setoff’s whereabouts. There are many outstanding questions about how Foley, who went missing after seeking to cross the Turkish border into Syria in 2012, even went missing in the first place.
Business Insider reported on Tuesday that most publicly available intelligence suggested that these captured American journalists were still in Syria, and may even be in the custody of Bashar al-Assad’s government.
What is unclear is if previous investigations into Foley’s whereabouts were inaccurate, if ISIS militants somehow captured Foley from some of the regime’s most elite security, or if the Assad regime provided Foley to ISIS.
“Until recently, James Foley was thought to be in hands of pro-Assad forces. If Assad is handing over Westerners to ISIS to be killed, it indicates Assad feels cornered, looking for leverage,” BBC’s Kim Ghattas tweeted, adding that the assessment jibes with what she has been told by sources in Damascus recently.
Nevertheless, the revelation that the White House was aware of the threats to Foley’s life and was unable to provide for his safety will prompt administration critics to sharpen their attacks on Obama’s approach to the crisis in the Middle East. In the wake of what may have been a preventable atrocity, some of that criticism will be quite valid.