Late Wednesday, just 24-hours after Islamic State militants released a video featuring the execution of American journalist James Foley, American officials revealed that they tried to rescue him and other American hostages in a “complicated operation.” Unfortunately, however, that operation failed.
The mission aimed at freeing Foley and others from ISIS captivity resembled in many ways the covert operation which resulted in the neutralization of Osama bin Laden.
“The airborne raid into Syria was launched using modified Black Hawk helicopters,” The Washington Post revealed. “They were with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, an elite group of aviators that frequently operates with the Army’s Delta Force, Navy SEALs and other U.S. commandos in hair-raising missions across the world.”
Yet when American commandos arrived at the area where they believed ISIS was holding American prisoners, Pentagon Spokesman Admiral John Kirby disclosed, “The hostages were not present at the targeted location.” Several ISIS fighters were killed in a firefight with American Special Forces before the raid ended unsuccessfully.
So, why release this information at all? Some suggest that President Barack Obama’s administration has a political incentive to publicize details of the failed raid in the wake of Foley’s death. Operationally, it makes little sense to reveal American Special Forces tactics, particularly in a case in which those tactics were foiled. Some unnamed Pentagon officials agree.
“Two Defense 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,” The New York Times reported. “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.”
According to a National Security Council statement, the administration was simply trying to get ahead of reporters who were going to reveal the details of the raid with or without government collaboration. The administration, the NSC claims, would have preferred to have been able to keep this failed mission a secret indefinitely.
“We never intended to disclose this operation,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “An overriding concern for the safety of the hostages and for operational security made it imperative that we preserve as much secrecy as possible.”
“We only went public today when it was clear a number of media outlets were preparing to report on the operation and that we would have no choice but to acknowledge it,” she added.
Why, then, not simply confirm that the raid occurred to press outlets making that inquiry? Why release details of the forces and equipment used, the faction of ISIS responsible for the hostages, and the mission goals? In a conference call with reporters, officials said that the administration wanted to keep the failed raid a secret in order to “preserve future opportunities” to mount further rescue missions.
American reporter Steven Sotloff remains in ISIS captivity and the fundamentalist group has threatened to execute him next if American airstrikes in Iraq continue.