Now that President Obama has voiced the outrage and disgust that many felt about the murder of American journalists James Foley by an extremist fighting under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, what precisely can he do to punish those responsible for the heinous execution?
“The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people,” Obama told reporters Wednesday on Martha’s Vineyard, where he is vacationing with his family. “We will be vigilant and we will be relentless.”
In the wake of the execution -- and despite ISIS’ pledge to kill another American journalist if U.S. air strikes continued -- American war planes and drones continued to pound ISIS positions in western Iraq. It's not a coincidence that a few hours after the president’s speech, the Associated Press reported that the Department of Defense was considering sending up to 300 additional troops to Iraq.
However, the president has only a few options if he wants to bring Foley’s murderers to justice. Each option provides no guarantee that the killers would be located or that ISIS would be stopped.
Here’s what the president can do to try to find those responsible for killing Foley.
1. Attempt to kill ISIS with airstrikes. Late Wednesday, numerous reports out of the UK indicated that the English-speaking jihadist in the video of Foley’s beheading is likely a British national who is fighting alongside other Brits. This isn’t surprising, considering the many westerners who have flocked to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, including an estimated 400 from Great Britain.
It also provides an important clue for those looking for him. Unless Foley’s killer has false documents, he’s traveling on a British passport. If American and British authorities are able to identify him, his movements with that passport can be tracked.
That would also give American warplanes a general idea of where to strike. However, as Osama bin Laden proved to U.S. forces in the mountains of Tora Bora in 2001, it’s often difficult to assassinate someone with air power.
2. Send the Special Forces. On the other hand, Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011 shows that Special Forces can be effective at eliminating enemy targets. If U.S. intelligence can get a fix on Foley’s killer and his accomplices, the president could send in a Special Forces team to kill or capture him.
However, the use of Special Forces isn’t always effective. In October 2013, members of al Shabaab turned away SEAL Team 6 on the Somali coast during an early morning raid. U.S. Special Operations forces mounted an unsuccessful operation this summer to rescue Foley and other Americans being held in Syria by Islamic State militants, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. That attempt involved "several dozen U.S. commandos, one of whom was injured in a fierce firefight with the militants," according to the report. It was the first known U.S. ground operation in Syria since the country’s descent into civil war.
3. Continue or step up airstrikes . It’s going to be difficult to find whoever killed Foley, and while the world is aghast at the brutal murder, there are more urgent strategic needs –- like finding ways to further thwart ISIS advances throughout a major swath of Iraq. Obama could simply concentrate on defeating ISIS –- an effort that will only gain in popularity as time goes by. If and when the terrorist group is near ruin, Obama could then send in Special Forces to try to locate and kill him.
What happened to Foley is a terrible thing, and the jihadists who did it deserve to be severely punished. Other ISIS members have committed the same crime time and time again in their advance toward Baghdad. All of them need to be brought to justice.
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