The US military says it launched a secret mission to rescue journalist James Foley and other Americans held captive by Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria but failed to find them.
The White House says president Barack Obama authorised the mission earlier this year and it is understood to have been carried out by several dozen special forces troops.
“This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within ISIL (IS),” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.
“Unfortunately the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location.”
News of the failed rescue emerged a day after IS released a video of one of its members beheading kidnapped journalist Foley in revenge for US air strikes in Iraq.
Mr Obama’s counterterrorism aide Lisa Monaco said the president authorised action because “these hostages were in danger with each passing day in ISIL custody”.
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“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,” Ms Monaco said in a statement.
“Unfortunately that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present.
“Given the need to protect our military’s operational capabilities, we will not be able to reveal the details of this operation, but the president could not be prouder of the US forces who carried out this mission …”
The video of Foley’s execution has prompted widespread revulsion and condemnation from world leaders.
Titled A Message To America, it also showed images of another US journalist, Steven Sotloff, whose fate Islamic State said depended on how the United States acted in Iraq.
Earlier this month the US began bombing IS forces in northern Iraq in a bid to prevent a feared genocide as jihadists closed in on thousands of members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority.
Later US air raids were conducted in support of Iraqi forces near Mosul, where extremists were battling for control of a major dam.
Jihadists contacted family before murder
It has also been revealed that earlier this month jihadists had contacted one of the media outlets Foley had worked for, warning the American would be killed.
Philip Balboni, chief executive of news site GlobalPost, to which Foley contributed while covering the war in Libya and then Syria before his abduction in 2012, said the journalist’s captors had been in touch in the weeks before his murder.
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“We’ve had communication with the captors, and there was at one time a receptivity to a negotiation that would lead to a release,” Balboni told MSNBC television.
“It’s impossible to say because the kidnappers ceased to communicate with us, with the family.”
Balboni said that after the beginning of renewed US air strikes, the Islamic State warned the Foleys that their son would be killed.
“We have not released this, but there was one communication after the bombing began that went to the family that stated that Jim would be executed,” he said.
“We hoped and prayed that it would not and we did everything we could ourselves to communicate back to them that Jim was just an innocent journalist who loved the Syrian people, who understood Islam, and only wanted to tell the story of the Syrian people.”
Asked if he believed the bombing campaign was connected to Foley’s murder, Balboni said: “The onset of the bombing, which was done for very good and sufficient reason by our government, perhaps was the thing that sealed Jim’s fate.”
But he stressed the Foley family did not blame their son’s death on Mr Obama’s decision to launch air strikes.
Parents beg for mercy for remaining captives
GlobalPost led the two-year effort to find and free Foley. Balboni said several other Westerners were taken hostage in Syria and elsewhere, and that he was “virtually certain” that ransoms were paid to gain their freedom.
“We are so deeply sorry that we couldn’t bring Jim home safely,” he said.
Balboni said he was now focusing on the remaining hostages, including Sotloff.
“We know what they’ve done and we have to believe that they’re more than capable of doing this again,” he said.
Foley’s parents, John and Dianne, have begged for mercy for those who remain captive.
“We beg compassion and mercy for Steven Sotloff and for the other captors – we just beg mercy. They they never hurt anybody, they’re trying to help and there’s no reason for their slaughter,” Mr Foley said.
“But Jimmy’s free, he’s finally free, and he’s in God’s hands and we know he’s in heaven.
“How do you make sense out of someone as good as Jim meeting such a fate?”
Mrs Foley said the family had also received word from other captives who have been freed about how their son helped them.
“In the midst of his suffering he was helping the other prisoners,” Mrs Foley said. “There were a couple of much younger people in that cell – Jim was one of the much older ones – and he would hold one of them, we were told, who was struggling.”
“When Jim could do that, we somehow needed that strength.”
Syria has been the most dangerous country for journalists for more than two years. At least 69 other journalists have been killed covering the conflict there and more than 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that approximately 20 journalists are currently missing in Syria. Many of them are believed to be held by Islamic State.
The State Department says it is “not giving a number” but is aware of other Americans who are captive.
Spokeswoman Marie Harf said “for their security” she was not prepared to provide any details.