WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday called the beheading of New Hampshire war correspondent James W. Foley an “act of violence that shocks the conscience of the entire world,” and he pledged renewed determination to confront the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State.
Obama’s brief remarks from Martha’s Vineyard came as military officials revealed that American air and ground forces attempted to rescue Foley and other Americans earlier this summer in Syria, but the hostages were not found where rescuers expected them to be.
Sounding somber and at times angry, Obama lashed out at Foley’s killers, saying, “No just God would stand for what they did yesterday or what they do every single day.
“They may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States or the West, but the fact is they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their empty vision.”
Obama said the United States would keep up the pressure on the group, which has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria but did not elaborate. Nor did military officials provide details of the failed rescue mission.
“Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location,” said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, added that details were being withheld “to protect our military’s operational capabilities.”
The Islamic State is seen as particularly virulent due to its organizational skills and a highly savvy Internet and social media presence. Indeed, the group warned Foley’s family in an e-mail on Aug. 13 that it planned to execute him, said Philip Balboni, chief executive of GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news website to which Foley contributed.
“The message was vitriolic and filled with rage against the United States,” he said. “It was deadly serious.”
Days later, a video of an Islamic State militant apparently beheading Foley appeared on YouTube, but Balboni said he did not know when exactly the journalist was killed.
The recent threat was not the first time the militants contacted the family.
In a “very limited number” of e-mails starting last fall, Balboni said, the Islamic State demanded a ransom, in both political and financial terms, for Foley’s release.
“There were monetary challenges that were not going to be easy to overcome,” he said.
The United States has previously stated it refuses to pay ransoms for hostages.
‘Let’s be clear about ISIL. They have rampaged across cities and villages, killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence’ and subjecting victims to ‘torture and rape and slavery.’President Obama
GlobalPost and the Foley family were able to pinpoint Foley’s location in September 2013, Balboni said, and they had followed him since.
Throughout the process, GlobalPost provided all the information it had to the US government, including the FBI and the State Department, Balboni said, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry was directly involved.
The video of Foley’s apparent beheading, which US intelligence officials believe to be authentic, raised new fears that the Islamic State intends to attack more American targets and citizens in retaliation for ongoing US airstrikes against its forces in Iraq.
It also raised the possibility that the US military could be drawn deeper into the conflicts in both Iraq and Syria, where the Obama administration has been reluctant to intervene in a civil war in which the militant group is one of a several competing armed factions attempting to topple the dictatorship of Bashir al-Assad.
The Pentagon reported that US aircraft, which began striking at Islamic State forces in Iraq on Aug. 8, conducted 14 additional airstrikes on Wednesday, destroying a number of vehicles and weapons emplacements.
Senior military officials, who declined to be identified by name because they were not authorized to speak publicly, also said on Wednesday that the Obama administration was weighing the possibility of dispatching more US troops to Iraq to supplement nearly 1,000 now advising Iraqi security forces and defending US diplomatic facilities.
“Everyone knew when we started airstrikes that what we were doing was more than just defending the Kurds or preventing genocide,” said Andrew Liepman, the former deputy director of the US National Counterterrorism Center. “We were no longer a bystander, we were a combatant. That has lots of consequences.”
He said if the United States is serious about confronting the Islamic State it will probably have to attack it more aggressively, including in Syria, from which the group has staged its assault on western and northern Iraq.
“Our progress in rolling back Al Qaeda was almost entirely because we removed people,” said Liepman, who is now a senior policy analyst at the government-funded Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. “If you apply that to [the Islamic State] that involves a much deeper involvement on our part than bombing a few artillery pieces. I’m pretty sure we are not ready to do that.”
The 40-year-old Foley, a freelance journalist, was reporting in Syria for GlobalPost and a French wire service when he went missing in November 2012.
The released videotape was seen by US counterterrorism officials as a bold new sign of the group’s willingness to take on the United States.
The tactic has become increasingly common among some of the most deadly Islamic terror groups, beginning with the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by Al Qaeda in Pakistan in 2002.
A recent study by the Army War College of the phenomenon said the intent is to strike fear, influence political decisions, “and weaken the resolve of nations and individuals who might support the global war on terrorism.” The horrific nature of the killings, it continued, serves the dual purpose of shocking citizens in victims’ home countries and serving as a recruiting tool for new insurgents.
In the video depicting Foley’s murder, posted to YouTube on Tuesday, the masked executioner, addressing Obama personally in British-accented English, threatened more bloodshed against Americans, including another captured journalist, Steven J. Sotloff, who was also depicted in the video.
The developments were particularly troubling for the government of Great Britain, which said it was investigating whether Foley’s executioner is a British national, fearing that some of the group’s followers could pose a direct threat to Europe.
The prospect of more US military involvement was cause for alarm for those opposed to any US military intervention in the conflict.
“We wrecked that country, and we are paying for it,” said Cole Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action, referring to the US-led war in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.
For weeks dozens of members of Congress from both parties, including the entire Massachusetts delegation, have been urging Obama, to no avail, to seek a congressional vote before any sustained military operation.
Obama used his remarks on Martha’s Vineyard to deliver one of his harshest indictments of the Islamic State, saying that Foley’s courageous efforts to give a voice to the victims of the Syrian civil war stood in “stark contrast to his killers.”
“Let’s be clear about ISIL,” Obama said, referring to one acronym for the group. “They have rampaged across cities and villages, killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence” and subjecting victims to “torture and rape and slavery.”
Kerry, in a written statement, echoed the president’s disdain for the group’s “ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil.”
Yet he went further than Obama by saying that the group “must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable.”
The Islamic State, he said, “is getting exactly what they want. This is a propaganda ploy to get attention, and we can’t help ourselves” by feeding into it.
He said the group, which is fighting on several fronts in Syria and Iraq, has been surprisingly resilient but “the jury is out on how long they can keep it up.
“I think it is hugely dangerous,” he said, “but I am not convinced it is the next Al Qaeda.”
Balboni said the message the militants sent last week, which came after the United States had begun bombing Islamic State targets in northern Iraq, carried a drastically darker and more violent tone than previous communications. Foley’s family and GlobalPost pleaded with the militants, saying that Foley was innocent and meant no harm to Syrians.
“Sadly, they showed no mercy,” Balboni said.