NORFOLK, Va. (AP/WAVY) — The United States launched a new barrage of airstrikes against Islamic State extremists Wednesday and weighed sending more troops to Iraq as President Barack Obama vowed to be relentless in pursuit of the terrorist group that beheaded an American journalist and is holding other U.S. citizens hostage.
In brief but forceful remarks, Obama said the U.S. would “do what we must to protect our people,” but stopped short of promising to follow the Islamic State into its safe haven in Syria, where officials said Wednesday that James Foley was killed. However, when pressed, 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.
The Islamic State called Foley’s execution a revenge killing for U.S. airstrikes against militants in Iraq, launched from the Norfolk-based U.S.S. George H. W. Bush, 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.
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.”
“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.
Old Dominion University Professor Dr. Donald Smith lived in Syria for several years. He said Foley’s murder could lead to more involvement in the region, potentially impacting the military in Hampton Roads. He said he is still in touch with a friend from the country, who described Syria as chaotic.
“He says if I drive five miles I’m going to run into two or three road blocks and I have no idea who’s going to be controlling the road blocks, whether they’re going to be someone who’s going to want to kill me or someone who’s going to want to support me,” he said.
Dr. Smith says there is no easy solution, but he now thinks air strikes in Iraq might be too limited against the terrorists.
“I think I would go in and clean them out, frankly, because they are a danger to all the Middle East and they’re ultimately a danger to the U.S.,” he said.
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, a 40-year-old journalist from Rochester, New Hampshire, was no stranger to war zone reporting. He went missing in northern Syria in November 2012 while freelancing for Agence France-Presse and the Boston-based media company GlobalPost. The car he was riding in was stopped by four militants in a contested battle zone that both Sunni rebel fighters and government forces were trying to control. He had not been heard from since.
He was one of at least four Americans still being held in Syria — three of whom officials said were kidnapped by the Islamic State. The fourth, freelance journalist Austin Tice, disappeared in Syria in August 2012 and is believed to be in the custody of government forces in Syria.
The Islamic State video of Foley’s beheading also showed another of the missing American journalists, Steven Sotloff, and warned he would be the next killed if U.S. airstrikes continued. U.S. officials believe the video was made days before its Tuesday release, perhaps last weekend, and have grown increasingly worried about Sotloff’s fate.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says that more than 80 journalists have been abducted in Syria, and estimates that around 20 are currently missing there.