James Foley: Elite US military took part in failed bid to rescue photojournalist

Pentagon says both the Army's Delta Force and Navy SEAL commandos wanted 'to be in on the op' last July

The operation to free James Foley and his fellow hostages was undertaken by the elite of the US military and intelligence, including those from units which had tracked down and killed Osama Bin Laden. There was a fierce firefight, a large number of Isis fighters were reported to have been killed, with just one American suffering minor injuries.

But the first US intervention in the killing fields of Syria was a failure; the captives were not found; the information about their location was inaccurate; the troops were forced to withdraw; Foley met a horrific death six weeks later, his beheading posted on video by the murderous jihadists. There followed recriminations in Washington not only about the botched mission, but the fact that it had been revealed by officials.

The US administration had 21 months since Foley, a photojournalist, was abducted in Idlib province and 12 months since Steven Joel Soltoff, the next captive to be killed according to Isis, was taken near Aleppo, to mount a rescue mission. But the military option had been taken by the White House late in the day, after threats by the Islamists that they will start executions unless they were paid a massive ransom.

Six other journalists, four French and two Spanish held by Isis, some of them at the same place as Foley and Saltoff were freed in March and April this year in return, it was claimed, for their governments paying out sizeable sums. The Americans, however, stuck to their policy of not trading with kidnappers, and the decision was taken to try and spring the prisoners before it was too late with a night attack in early July.

The task force put together had “virtually every service represented” said a Washington official, with “special operators and aircraft both rotary and fixed wing with surveillance aircraft overhead”. They included the “Night Stalkers”, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, flying Black Hawk helicopter-gunships bristling with weaponry: both the Army's Delta Force and Navy SEAL commandos wanted “to be in on the op”. At the Pentagon, Rear Admiral John F Kirby stressed: “We put the best of the United States military in harm's way to try and bring our citizens home. The United States government uses the full breadth of our military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring people home whenever we can.”

The CIA and NSA have been supposedly tracking the whereabouts of the hostages and various contingency plans have been put together by the Pentagon. But there was said to be a surprising lack of technical information, data and aerial imagery as the mission finally got under way.

As a result there was a need to rely on HUMINT, human intelligence, on the ground and for that the Americans, as well as depending on their own agents, went to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella group for the more moderate of the rebel groups.

The FSA has been accused of being dysfunctional; it has been losing territory inside Syria as well as fighters to hardline Islamist groups, although recently, with Isis fighting in Syria as well, it had made some gains. Some of the information to the Americans came from an unlikely source. “We have defectors from the regime with us and they have contacts with those still serving with the regime because we think some of them will defect as well” said a FSA battalion commander currently in Istanbul. “These people had their own intelligence on Isis and we passed that on to the Americans, why shouldn't we? But it's always difficult because Isis move their prisoners around.”

Foley was kidnapped with another photojournalist near the village of Taftanaz in Idlib province in November 2012. According to some reports on the ground, their abductors were members of a criminal gang who sold them to the Islamists. The Independent is withholding the identity of the second journalist at the request of his family.

The two men were held, it is believed, for six months from March last year at a prison near Masha al-Adfaa hospital near Aleppo, where they were selected for particularly harsh treatment among the 80 detainees. They were subsequently moved to an Isis training camp. Foley spent seven months in another location with the four French journalists who were freed in April; he was again subjected to physical and mental abuse.

It is believed that Foley, the photojournalist he was captured with and Soltoff had been moved one more time before the US raid took place. Lisa Monaco, a counter-terrorism advisor to the White House said: “The US government had what we believed was sufficient intelligence and when the opportunity presented itself, the President authorized the Department of Defence to move aggressively to recover our citizens.”

Ms Monaco maintained that the failed mission would be evidence of how far the US will go to protect its citizens. “Their effort should serve as another signal to those who do us harm that the United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens to hold their captors responsible.”

Others took a very different view. “I am very disappointed this was released” said a Pentagon official to the American media. “This only makes our job harder. We now know that any second operation is going to be a lot more difficult.” Robert Emerson, a security analyst, added: “The news of the operation seems to have been leaked when there was criticism that the Obama administration had not done enough to save Foley and the other Americans. But the level of detail means that you're telling the enemy what to watch out for next time, they will also know to keep moving the hostages.”