U.S. military forces unsuccessfully tried to rescue a number of American hostages being held in Syria by Islamic extremists, the U.S. Defense Department said Wednesday. News reports said those hostages included the freelance journalist James Foley, whose beheading was shown in a video released Tuesday.
The Pentagon gave few details of the operation, declining to say when and where specifically in Syria it took place, or how many U.S. forces were involved.
The Washington Post, The Associated Press and other media said the operation took place earlier this summer.
"The United States attempted a rescue operation recently to free a number of American hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within ISIL," the statement said. "Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location."
White House officials told The New York Times that Special Forces commandos exchanged fire with militants, and one American was slightly wounded when one of the U.S. aircraft came under fire.
The grisly beheading of James Foley, a freelance journalist who had been held captive since disappearing in Syria in 2012, prompted wide outrage, including condemnation from President Barack Obama who called the Islamic State militant group that took credit for the execution a spreading "cancer" that must be eradicated.
"The entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of James Foley," Obama said earlier Wednesday. The United States "will continue to do what we must do to protect our people."
U.S. intelligence officials on Wednesday confirmed the authenticity of the video, which was released Tuesday and shows Foley being put to death. It also showed a second American journalist being held hostage, Steven Joel Sotloff, and included militants' threats to kill him.
The Sunni extremist group claimed it had killed Foley in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes targeting the group's fighters in northern Iraq. The strikes, which began Aug. 8, helped rescue thousands of Yazidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar and helped Iraqis regain control of the country's main dam, near Mosul. In the hours after the video's release, the U.S. said it carried out nearly a dozen more airstrikes near the dam.
The 40-year-old Foley disappeared Nov. 22, 2012, after being abducted in Syria by unidentified gunmen. He had reported in the Middle East for five years, for organizations including GlobalPost, and previously had spent six weeks in captivity in Libya.
It was not immediately clear where or when the execution took place.
Obama, in a brief televised appearance from the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, said he had telephoned Foley's family members in New Hampshire to say "we are all heartbroken at their loss."
The Islamic State militants, Obama said, "have rampaged" across swaths of Syria and Iraq.
"They abduct women and children and subject them to rape and torture and slavery," he said.