American forces in Iraq to help the Iraqi military push back advancing Islamic State fighters used Apache helicopters for the first time over the weekend to attack positions of the Islamist terrorist group near Baghdad.
At the same time, the parents of an American aid worker held captive in Syria and threatened with beheading by the Islamic State (IS) pleaded for mercy for their son, Peter Kassig, a former US Army Ranger turned EMT who had gone to Lebanon in 2012 to help Syrian war victims.
The two disparate events demonstrated how quickly IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has gone from a murky preoccupation for diplomats worried about the group’s growth in war-ravaged Syria to a US military target and an unsettling household fixture in the US.
Ed and Paula Kassig of Indianapolis released a video message Saturday in which they implore IS to release their son, who was presented at the end of a video the group released Friday that shows the beheading of British hostage Allan Henning.
As the group has done in previous execution videos – starting with the beheading of American journalist James Foley in September, the first of four Westerners the group has beheaded on camera – the IS fighter in the video presented another kneeling, bound captive and said continued US action against IS would prompt his execution. The kneeling individual is Mr. Kassig.
On Sunday, Kassig’s parents released excerpts of a letter they’d received from their son in June, in which he confides that he is “pretty scared to die” but also says that he is “at peace with my belief” – a reference to his conversion to Islam at some point about a year ago. Kassig was abducted in October 2013 while in eastern Syria offering medical assistance.
Kassig’s parents asked that people use what they said is now their son’s preferred first name – Abdul-Rahman – which they said reflects a faith their son chose voluntarily. “We see this [name change] as part of our son’s long spiritual journey,” they said.
As Kassig’s parents sought mercy for their son, releasing photos showing him tending war victims in Syria and earlier on family outings in Indiana, American Apache helicopter pilots in Iraq were taking the US offensive against IS closer to its target.
The US over recent weeks has carried out hundreds of airstrikes against IS positions in northern Iraq, and a few in Syria – but those airstrikes have been conducted either from high-flying bombers or by missiles launched offshore by US vessels.
The Apache gunship attacks require much closer engagement with a target – and run the risk of a shoot-down that could result in US casualties or US pilots being captured by IS militants, military analysts say.
President Obama dispatched the Apaches to Baghdad in June to defend the US Embassy there against a surprise IS offensive into Iraq from Syria that brought the Sunni Islamist militants to the Iraqi capital’s doorstep.
The intensifying involvement of US forces in Iraq – including the Apaches – in the fight to keep IS out of Baghdad will no doubt be viewed by some critics of Mr. Obama’s military re-engagement in Iraq as a sign of the slippery slope they warned about.
The US gunship attacks in the Sunni outskirts of Baghdad also suggest, unsurprisingly, that the US is not heeding IS warnings of further consequences for their captive US citizens – in addition to Kassig, IS reportedly also holds an American woman – if the offensive continues. That can’t be encouraging news for the Kassigs in Indianapolis.