Why US special forces failed to rescue James Foley

US intelligence officials still know relatively little about the workings of Islamic State militants. James Foley may have been traded by insurgent groups before ending up in IS hands, which complicates the intelligence picture.

By , Staff writer

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    Journalist James Foley in Aleppo, Syria, in September 2012. In revenge for US airstrikes in northern Iraq, militants with the Islamic State extremist group killed Mr. Foley and are threatening to kill another hostage.
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The failed attempt to rescue journalist James Foley before he was killed by Islamic State militants – and the ongoing efforts to track down other American hostages before it’s too late – illustrate a glaring shortcoming in US military capabilities: that good US military intelligence on these militant groups is in short supply. 

Although the Pentagon greenlighted the deployment of Special Operations Forces (SOF) to Syria – along with the US military’s most high-tech air and ground components – the mission did not result in a rescue. 

“Unfortunately, the mission was not successful, because the hostages were not present at the targeted location,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement Wednesday evening.

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Even so, defense officials sought to put a positive spin on the mission. “This operation, by the way, was a flawless operation,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a briefing with reporters Thursday afternoon. “But the hostages were not there.” 

The Pentagon’s unusual confirmation of a failed Special Forces mission – made at the behest of the White House – was in large part an effort to reassure the American public that the United States has not sat idly by during the meteoric rise of the Islamic State (IS). 

But the news drove home the point, too, that US intelligence officials still know relatively little about the workings of IS.

Pentagon officials bristled at this implication, however. “Was this a failure of intelligence? No,” Secretary Hagel insisted. “The fact is that intelligence does not come wrapped in a package with a bow. It is a mosaic of many pictures, many factors.”

The problem, he added in a favorite Pentagon maxim, is that “the enemy always has a say in everything.” 

True, hostage rescue operations using Special Forces are “extraordinarily complicated” under any circumstances, says Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a nonresident fellow in the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That’s in large part because “high-value hostages are high-value assets to our adversaries, and they’re going to do what they can to preserve that asset, so they are going to be kept in highly protected, inaccessible places,” he says.

This is further complicated by the fact that as Al Qaeda leadership has been fragmented through US military strikes, the jihadist movement has become more diffuse as well, with “increasing numbers of groups and jihadist fighters,” says Paul Scharre, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who previously served as a specialist on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance programs at the Pentagon.

Mr. Foley, for example, may have been traded and bartered by different insurgent groups before ending up in IS hands, which in turn complicates the intelligence picture.

“Hostages may be traded for weapons, for territory. Government forces could give a hostage to a rebel group in exchange for leaving them alone in certain areas,” says Mr. Nelson, whose last military assignment before retiring from the Navy was with the Joint Special Operations Command.

Even when the intelligence picture is clearer, “one of the things people may not be aware of is that in Iraq and Afghanistan, when SOF would go on raids and go after terrorist networks, a huge number of those raids ended up in the person you’re looking for not being there,” Mr. Scharre says.

But even failed missions can be of intelligence value, analysts note.

“If the hostage had spent time at the site, you might have access to people who had been holding him at one time,” Nelson says. Then it might be possible to pick up information about “everything from when was the last time the hostages ate to their health, to what rank or role do you have in this terrorist organization, to what are your next set of battle plans?” he adds. “You rarely walk away with nothing.” 

Even the grisly video of the execution itself is being scrubbed now by intelligence analysts, Nelson notes. “We now dust for electronic prints the way we used to dust for fingerprints. Every piece of intelligence is a piece of intelligence we can use,” he says. “Who was standing next to Foley in the video? Where did it happen? These are electronic clues.” 

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