WASHINGTON -- The United States military will not broaden its campaign against the Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria after its killing of American journalist James Foley, US officials said Thursday, after US President Barack Obama spoke sharply against the group, and of a "relentless" US response to Foley's murder.
US officials said that, despite Foley's public beheading and the threatening of another journalist, Steven Sotloff, should strikes continue, the president has no plans to significantly increase air strikes against Islamic State fighters.
"From a military perspective, I don't think this is going to change anything," one US official said. "The military objective never was to degrade ISIL... it was to protect US personnel and facilities."
Last week, however, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the US focus at the moment was to push back against the group throughout northern Iraq.
“We’re focused on pushing them back from this territory," Harf said.
Foley's death was captured on video by the group, paired with a message from the genocidal group that warned of more American deaths unless the US stopped striking its assets. The American military has struck over 90 Islamic State targets thus far around Arbil, an oil-boom town in northern Iraq, Mount Sinjar, a refuge for religious minorities, and Mosul Dam, a key piece of infrastructure in the country's north.
Foley's family received an e-mail a week before the video was released, warning of his pending death and demanding a ransom of the US government in the amount of $132.5 million. The US government has a longstanding policy against paying ransom for kidnappings by terrorists, unlike its European partners, which have paid the Islamic State in the past several months for the return of its citizens.
"We do not make concessions to terrorists," Harf repeated on Thursday, saying that the US refuses to be a part of the "funding" of terrorism, or to encourage more kidnappings.
The US Justice Department has opened an investigation into Foley's murder, US attorney general Eric Holder acknowledged on Thursday. Foley, who went missing while on assignment for news Web site GlobalPost in Syria in November 2012, was 40 years old at his death.
The Pentagon continued to conduct with strikes against ISIS targets throughout northern Iraq throughout Wednesday and Thursday nights, after the video was released and Obama had been briefed. Over a two dozen strikes were conducted after ISIS released the video to the public.
Sotloff's life rests on whether or not the president would continue to authorize air strikes, the group stated.
"First of all, there is no justification for these kind of barbaric acts, period,"Harf told reporters on Wednesday.
"Second, we don’t make concessions to terrorists," she continued. "The president was clear we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. And I would also note that, as I said earlier, ISIL has been willing to kill and rape and enslave anyone who gets in their way, regardless of what country they’re from, regardless of the policies of that country."
Harf could not confirm that either Obama or US Secretary of State John Kerry had watched the video. Sotloff's current status, or fate, is unknown.
The White House was also forced to acknowledge on Wednesday night that Obama had authorized an air and ground operation
in Syria this summer, which failed to rescue several American hostages held by the Islamic State.
The attempted rescue represents the very first known such mission by US forces since the Syrian war began over three years ago. Leaders in Congress, as well as the Foley family, had been made aware of the operation at the time it took place, which has not been made public.
"This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within ISIL," Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said on Wednesday. "Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location."
The Pentagon did not specify the number of hostages suspected to be held in Syria, where the operation occurred specifically or how many US military personnel were involved.
US troops were fired upon with significant force by Islamist militants during the operation, according to officials, resulting in no deaths but the injury of at least one US officer.
The White House intended on keeping the attempted rescue mission secret, one spokesman said on Wednesday night. Only when details of the operation were leaked did the White House decide to comment.
“We never intended to disclose this operation," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said, responding to multiple media requests. "An overriding concern for the safety of the hostages and for operational security made it imperative that we preserve as much secrecy as possible."
"We only went public today when it was clear a number of media outlets were preparing to report on the operation and that we would have no choice but to acknowledge it," Hayden continued.
General John R. Allen (Ret.) lauded Obama for his actions against the Islamic State on Wednesday night— but called on the president to broaden the mission, and to destroy the group "quickly" before its terror can further metastasize.
"Make no mistake," Allen wrote, in an op-ed featured on DefenseOne, "the abomination of [the Islamic State] is a clear and present danger to the US."
Allen, a retired four-star general who ran operations for the US in Afghanistan, was nominated in 2013 for the position of NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
"The only question really is whether the US and its allies and partners will act decisively now," he continued," while they can still shape events to destroy [Islamic State]."
Foley's killer, who speaks in the video with a London accent, is understood to be a British citizen by the UK intelligence community, according to Prime Minister David Cameron, who returned from his summer holiday for crisis meetings on the matter.
Cameron called the act nothing short of "murder without any justification," and said that the perpetrator was "likely" a British national.
British media outlets circulated rumors of the murderer's origins, citing sources that identified him as "John," a member of a group of extremist Arab Londoners. Independently, government officials confirm that close to a quarter of roughly 2,000 foreign nationals fighting in Syria are British.
In a statement from Massachusetts earlier in the day, Obama sternly condemned the videotaped murder of Foley.
Obama administration officials say the president reserves all options to protect Americans under threat in the region. But the president has ruled out "boots on the ground" to fight the Islamic State, either in Iraq or Syria, where the group has control over territory.
On Wednesday, Obama called the Islamic State a "cancer" that the world must prevent from spreading.
In a prepared statement, Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said that the White House would be unable to confirm further details of the rescue mission for the protection of military personnel in the region.
"Earlier this summer the president authorized an operation to attempt the rescue of American citizens who were kidnapped and held by ISIL against their will in Syria," Monaco said. "The President authorized action at this time because it was the national security team’s assessment that these hostages were in danger with each passing day in ISIL custody."
"The US 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," she continued.
Meanwhile, Iran has conflated its willingness to help curb the threat of the Islamic State with the West's willingness to ease sanctions on its country, put in place due to concerns with Iran's vast nuclear program.
"If we agree to do something in Iraq, the other side in the negotiations will need to do something in return," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in remarks on Wednesday carried by Iran's state-run news agency. "All the sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear activities should be lifted in return for its help in Iraq."
The White House has said that the two issues are not related, and that they will not be discussed jointly at the negotiating table over Iran's nuclear work. World powers seek to reach a comprehensive agreement ending the nuclear crisis by November.
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