James Foley beheading: President Obama calls jihadists’ bluff and launches fresh air strikes against Isis targets near Mosul

Hostages at risk of reprisals thought to include at least 10 Westerners

us editor

The United States has unleashed a new aerial barrage against jihadist positions in northern Iraq in a clear sign that Barack Obama will not be deterred by the beheading this week of an American reporter, James Foley, or by threats of further murders of foreign hostages if the strikes continue.

US officials confirmed that six strikes were carried out near Mosul Dam, which was retaken from Isis militants this week by a combined Kurdish and Iraqi force. The purpose, the officials said, was to consolidate the government forces’ hold on the vital facility and establish a wide safety perimeter around it. The video of the murder of Mr Foley – which first surfaced on Tuesday – included a chilling narration saying he was being killed in direct response to the US air strikes, which now number 84 since they started on 8 August.

The video also warned that further killings would follow if the attacks did not end and specifically identified the captive journalist Steven Sotloff as being the next victim in line.

It is believed that Isis, which now styles itself as the Islamic State, may be holding an additional two US journalists, whose whereabouts and fate are also of urgent concern in Washington.

“Those who would perpetrate such acts need to understand something,” the Attorney General, Eric Holder, said, as news emerged of the air strikes overnight on Wednesday. “We have long memories and our reach is very wide and we will not forget what happened. People will be held accountable one way or another.”

Details, meanwhile, have surfaced of efforts made by the hostage-takers to extract a ransom for the release of Mr Foley. US officials, speaking anonymously, said that more than $100m was demanded by Isis in email communications with Mr Foley’s parents in New Hampshire. Unlike some European countries, however, the US appears firm in its resolve not to pay ransom to terror groups.

While the return of the US military to Iraq has been met with consternation by most Americans, the horror of Mr Foley’s murder will, if anything, now make it easier politically for Mr Obama to sustain the air campaign.

 

John Allen, a retired Marine general who commanded the Afghanistan war from 2011 to 2013, urged Mr Obama to “move quickly” to pressure Isis’s “entire nervous system” to “break it up, and destroy its pieces”. “A comprehensive American and international response now – now – is vital to the destruction of this threat… The Islamic State is an entity beyond the pale of humanity and it must be eradicated. If we delay now, we will pay later,” he wrote on the Defence One website.

There has so far been no indication from Mr Obama that he would countenance such a step. Even so, Americans today were, for the first time, learning the details of a failed rescue operation by US special forces inside Syria earlier this summer. Mr Foley and other hostages were nowhere to be found. A firefight with Isis guards took place and one US soldier was hurt but not critically, the Pentagon acknowledged.

 

There have been no voices from Congress calling on Mr Obama to end the strikes, in spite of fears for the life of Mr Sotloff and other reporters. On the conservative side, Senator John McCain has led those demanding that US action should be more muscular. “The strategy should be to launch all-out air attacks in Iraq and Syria to defeat” the Isis fighters, he said.

By contrast, Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and House Intelligence Committee member warned: “The administration would be wise to not get sucked in.”

Meanwhile, France’s President François Hollande has placed the blame for the crisis on Britain and the US.

He told Le Monde the “international community carries a very grave responsibility” for the rise of Isis because a year ago it refused to take military action against the Syrian regime to punish its use of chemical weapons.

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