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US commandos tried to rescue James Foley and other hostages

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Michael Shear

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The secret James Foley rescue mission

US forces tried rescuing journalist James Foley from Syria over a month before he was killed by Islamic State militants.

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A United States Special Operations team tried and failed to rescue journalist James Foley and other Americans held hostage in Syria, during a secret mission in early July authorised by President Barack Obama, senior administration officials said.

A day after Sunni militants posted a video showing Foley being beheaded, officials described what they called a "complicated operation" in which several dozen commandos were dropped into a remote area of Syria where American intelligence agencies believed several hostages were being held by the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

Journalist James Foley in 2007.

Journalist James Foley in 2007. Photo: AP

The mission was conducted by a joint force that included members from all of the military services, the officials said.

About two dozen Special Operations soldiers were dropped to the ground by helicopters and were supported overhead by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, the officials said.

"We do believe there were a good number of ISIL casualties as a result of this operation," an official said.

'We will be vigilant and we will be relentless': President Barack Obama.

'We will be vigilant and we will be relentless': President Barack Obama. Photo: AP

But when the Special Operations team arrived, the hostages were not there.

The officials said the commandos exchanged fire with militants. The officials said they believed a number of the terrorists were killed in the operation.

One American was slightly wounded when one of the United States aircraft came under fire.

Heartbroken ... Diane and John Foley pay tribute to their son James as they talk to reporters after speaking with US President Barack Obama.

Heartbroken ... Diane and John Foley pay tribute to their son James as they talk to reporters after speaking with US President Barack Obama. Photo: AP

All of the team members were evacuated successfully.

"It was not ultimately successful because the hostages were not present at the location of the operation," a senior administration official said.

"We obviously wish this had been successful."

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement: "The United States attempted a rescue operation recently to free a number of American hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

"This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within ISIL."

Officials declined to say how many hostages they were trying to rescue or to provide the names of the people who they believed were being held captive by the militants.

The administration said the decision to release information about the rescue attempt was made as some news organisations prepared to reveal the mission's existence.

The officials said they had kept the mission secret for a number of weeks in an attempt to "preserve future opportunities" to conduct another rescue operation.

Officials would not provide the location of the mission, but noted that if it had taken place in or near a heavily populated area, it would most likely have been noticed before now.

The officials also declined to describe the location, saying in part that the militants on the ground might not have been aware that the mission was a rescue attempt.

To describe the location precisely might give that fact away, they said.

The administration did not know whether the hostages had ever been in the location that intelligence had pointed to, or if they had been moved just before the American team arrived, officials said.

"The truth is we don't know," one official said. "When we got there, they weren't there. We don't know why that is."

The mission was authorised by Mr Obama after intelligence from a variety of sources suggested a location where the hostages were being held, the officials said.

They added that the breadth of the intelligence gave them confidence to go ahead with the rescue attempt.

They said intelligence is not "an exact science", 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. We never stopped, never halted trying to get information about them."

The administration has kept in touch with the family members of the Americans being held by the militants 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.

"They were informed as soon as we felt operationally we could do so," one official said.

Foley was kidnapped in northern Syria in November 2012. The video of his execution, released on Tuesday, also showed a second US reporter, Steven Sotloff, being paraded on screen.

It was not immediately clear if either reporter was the target of the failed rescue mission.

In a White House statement on the rescue attempt, Lisa Monaco, assistant to Mr Obama for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said: "The President authorised action at this time because it was the national security team's assessment that these hostages were in danger with each passing day in ISIL custody.

"The US government had what we believed was sufficient intelligence, and when the opportunity presented itself, the President authorised the Department of Defence to move aggressively to recover our citizens."

New York Times, Reuters, AFP

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