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Beheading spurs new attacks on Islamic militants

Thursday - 8/21/2014, 2:44pm  ET

FILE - In this Friday, May 27, 2011, file photo, journalist James Foley responds to questions during an interview with The Associated Press, in Boston. A video by Islamic State militants that purports to show the killing of Foley by the militant group was released Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014. Foley, from Rochester, N.H., went missing in 2012 in northern Syria while on assignment for Agence France-Press and the Boston-based media company GlobalPost. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

RYAN LUCAS
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States launched a new barrage of airstrikes Wednesday against the Islamic State extremist group that beheaded American journalist James Foley and that has seized a swath of territory across Iraq and Syria. President Barack Obama vowed relentless pursuit of the terrorists and the White House revealed that the U.S. had launched a secret rescue mission inside Syria earlier this summer that failed to rescue Foley and other Americans still being held hostage.

In brief but forceful remarks, Obama said the U.S. would "do what we must to protect our people," but he stopped short of promising to follow the Islamic State in its safe haven within Syria, where officials said Foley had been killed. Later, though, the administration revealed that several dozen special operations troops had been on the ground in Syria briefly in an effort to rescue the hostages, but did not find them.

And looking forward, the State Department refused to rule out future U.S. military operations in Syria, where Obama has long resisted intervening in a three-year civil war.

Western nations agreed to speed help to combat the militants -- most notably Germany, which bucked public opposition by announcing it would arm Iraqi Kurdish fighters to battle the Islamic State. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he was outraged by the beheading, deeming it evidence of a "caliphate of barbarism." Italy's defense minister said the country hopes to contribute machine guns, ammunition and anti-tank rockets.

The Islamic State called Foley's death a revenge killing for U.S. airstrikes against militants in Iraq, and said other hostages would be slain if the attacks continued. Undeterred, the U.S. conducted 14 additional strikes after a video of the beheading surfaced, bringing to 84 the number of airstrikes since they began on Aug. 8.

Two U.S. officials said additional American troops -- probably less than 300 -- could be headed to Iraq to provide extra security around Baghdad, where the U.S. Embassy is located. That would bring the total number of American forces in Iraq to well over 1,000, although officials said no final decision had been made. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.

Foley's mother said she is praying for other hostages being held by the Sunni-dominated terror group, and described her son's slaying as "just evil."

Obama agreed.

"No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day," the president said. The Islamic State militants have promised to eliminate all people they consider heretics in their quest to create an extremist state across much of Iraq and Syria.

"We will be vigilant and we will be relentless," Obama said, urging unity among Mideast governments in order to eviscerate the extremist group's growing power. He spoke from Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, where his family is vacationing.

In capitals across the Middle East, news of Foley's death was met largely with silence, even in Syria and Iraq -- the two countries where the Islamic State is strongest. On social media, people in the region condemned Foley's killing, but stressed that the Islamic State has been committing atrocities against Iraqis and Syrians for years.

For much of the past year, and until this summer, the Obama administration was deeply divided on how much of a threat the Islamic State posed to Americans or even other nations beyond Iraq and Syria. But since the militants' march across northern Iraq in June, and as its ranks swelled almost threefold to an estimated 15,000 fighters, Obama has acknowledged that the Islamic State could become a direct threat to Americans.

The secret mission to rescue the U.S. hostages involved several dozen special operations forces dropped by aircraft into Syria. The hostages weren't found, but special forces engaged in a firefight with Islamic State militants before departing, according to administration officials. Several militants were killed, and one American sustained minor injuries.

"The U.S. government had what we believed was sufficient intelligence, and when the opportunity presented itself, the president authorized the Department of Defense to move aggressively to recover our citizens," Lisa Monaco, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present."

Foley's death proved to the West what many people in Syria and Iraq already knew: The Islamic State "has declared war on the civilized world," said Dr. Najib Ghadibian, the Syrian National Coalition's special representative to the U.S. The group's sweep also has served as a wake-up call to other Mideast governments, said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

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