This story has been updated.
Rejecting the Islamic State’s demands that United States airstrikes in Iraq stop or more journalists would be executed, U.S. military officials announced fresh strikes on the fighters and said President Barack Obama could deploy up to 300 new troops.
The announcement on Wednesday came less than one hour after the president condemned the execution of American journalist James Foley. Later in the day, Pentagon and White House officials announced the U.S. military tried to rescue several Americans believed held hostage in Syria earlier this summer, but the hostages were not at the presumed location. Foley was believed to be among those held captive, a senior defense official confirmed to Defense One. The official would not confirm if the hostage group targeted for rescue included TIME journalist Steven Soltoff, who Islamic State fighters threatened to execute next.
“Jim Foley’s life stands in stark contrast to his killers,” Obama said in a short statement from Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday. “They may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States, or the West. But the fact is they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an empty slavery to their empty vision. And the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.”
Fifty-five minutes later, officials from U.S. Central Command announced 14 new airstrikes hit Islamic State (sometimes referred to by officials as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) elements near the Mosul Dam, bringing the count to 84 strikes in less than two weeks, including 51 near the dam.
“U.S. military forces continued to attack ISIL terrorists in support of Iraqi security force operations, using fighter, remotely piloted and attack aircraft to conduct 14 airstrikes in the vicinity of the Mosul Dam,” the statement read.
The combined mix of airstrikes took out six Islamic State Humvees, three roadside bomb emplacements, two armed trucks and a mortar tube, according to CENTCOM. It is a further extension of the U.S. mission, which the command defines as assisting Iraqi and Kurdish defense forces, “as well as to protect critical infrastructure, U.S. personnel and facilities, and support humanitarian efforts.”
Shortly after the CENTCOM announcement, the Associated Press reported defense officials may beef up security around Baghdad with “fewer than 300” additional U.S. troops. Pentagon officials have not made a final decision on sending the additional troops, but if deployed, that would push the U.S. presence in Iraq well over 1,000. There are currently 850 American troops in Iraq, including personnel assigned to the embassy in Baghdad. The number of American troops in Iraq peaked at 964 on August 13.
“The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people,” Obama said. “We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done. And we act against ISIL standing alongside others…From governments and people across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread. There has to be a clear rejection of these kind of nihilistic ideologies. One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century.”
“There is evil in this world, and we all have come face to face with it once again. Ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil. ISIL is the face of that evil, a threat to people who want to live in peace, and an ugly insult to the peaceful religion they violate every day with their barbarity,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. “And make no mistake: we will continue to confront ISIL wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred. The world must know that the United States of America will never back down in the face of such evil. ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable.”
Since Foley’s death became known Tuesday, the administration faced criticism for not trying to rescue him or other Americans presumed held within the swath of Syria and Iraq held by the Islamic State group. Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, announcing the failed rescue attempt for Foley, said, “As we have said repeatedly, the United States government is committed to the safety and well-being of its citizens, particularly those suffering in captivity. In this case, we put the best of the United States military in harms’ 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 United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will work tirelessly to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable.”
The White House quickly released a following statement in which counterterrorism chief Lisa Monaco said, “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. Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present.”
Monaco said the administration would not reveal further details of the operation, but the Washington Post reported extensive details including that the intelligence was based in part on interviews with at least half a dozen former hostages who had been released, and that modified Black Hawk helicopters of the Army’s Special Forces went into Syria and came under heavy fire.
Kedar Pavgi contributed to this report.