From The Sky

02.05.15 10:55 AM ET

Was an Assault on ISIS HQ Also a Rescue Mission?

Warplanes pounded the ISIS capital on New Year’s Day—part of an operation, well-placed locals say, to save a captured pilot.

On January 1, there was a particularly brutal firefight in Raqqa, ISIS’s capital in Syria. According to al Jazeera, the extremist group beat back a pair of helicopters, packed with commandos that were attempting to land in Raqqa. Twenty vehicles belonging to ISIS were destroyed in the melee, a Pentagon press release later noted.

The fighting was especially tough because the stakes were especially high, according to local activists and regional reports. A Jordanian pilot had crashed in the area days before, on Christmas Eve. This was the rescue mission, they say.

“The Jordanians tried to free the pilot on Jan. 1,” Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi told The Daily Beast. Raqqawi is the name used by a member of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a coalition of activists reporting on crimes committed by the Assad regime and ISIS activity from inside of Syria. A source close to Jordanian intelligence also told The Daily Beast that a rescue mission was mounted on January 1, but provided no details.

The kingdom of Jordan hasn’t commented officially on the alleged rescue mission while Pentagon officials told The Daily Beast that if there was an operation it did not involve the U.S. But Raqqawi’s account matches with local press reports of a hostage retrieval mission gone wrong. And Raqqawi has had an especially clear view of the Syrian conflict. While the rest of the world was still operating under the assumption that the pilot, Muadh al-Kasasbeh, was alive, Raqqawi was the first to report that Kasasbeh had in fact been killed, burned to death just days after the alleged attempt to snatch him.

“The city of al-Raqqa witnessed an unusually intense aerial campaign conducted by coalition fighter jets,” Raqqawi reported on Jan. 2.

“As the jets were pounding the area,” Raqqawi wrote, “helicopter gunships attempted to make an airborne-landing operation.”

Intense ground fire from ISIS thwarted the first group of helicopters landing but a second mission followed “after five or 10 minutes,” Raqqawi told The Daily Beast.

Two more helicopters tried to land that night. But “they were faced by ISIS fighters who opened fire at them forcing them to hover away and abort the attempt.”

Kasasbeh was killed as early as Jan. 3 or as late as Jan. 8, according to accounts from U.S. and Jordanian officials.

That the mission was unsuccessful was not a surprise, nor an indication that it was somehow poorly executed or designed. Where other types of military operations can rely on brute force, hostage rescues are like threading a needle under fire. Even America’s most elite troops fail at them more often than not.

As hostage rescue experts and military officials told The Daily Beast in December, these raids are extraordinarily difficult to pull off because they depend upon accurate intelligence and superb timing, two things that are difficult to come by in a war zone.

“Any of these missions really come down to chance,” said Larry Vickers, a former member of Delta Force, the Army’s elite counterterrorism unit, and veteran of hostage rescue missions. “They are a go-for-broke, all-or-nothing type of operation.”

In 2010, Linda Norgrove, a British aid worker held in Afghanistan, was killed by a grenade thrown by a U.S. commando during a rescue operation.

In December, SEAL Team Six and a small group of Yemeni commandos crept toward a mud-walled compound to free American Luke Somers and South African Pierre Korkie from their al Qaeda captors, after an initial rescue attempt failed. But before the SEALs and commandos could get into the compound, one of the al Qaeda fighters stuck an AK-47 into the room where Somers and Korkie were being held and opened fire. They both died.

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“There was a strong feeling we had to try,” a U.S. national-security official told The Daily Beast. “We knew the odds were bad. You don’t take a shot once and then another shot and think the risk doesn’t go up dramatically.”

“We knew going in there was a very real threat to [Somers] and a very real threat to the force. What is the price of not doing it? It was high risk, but you can’t leave the guy,” the official added.

Five months earlier, in July 2014, Army Delta Force commandos landed at an oil storage facility in eastern Syria on a mission to take American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff back from ISIS. But the troops were too late. According to The Wall Street Journal, Foley and Sotloff had been moved as little as 72 hours earlier. They were later killed by ISIS in filmed executions. 

“The evaluation of success is a live hostage,” the national-security official told The Daily Beast. “But, you know walking into it the bad guys get a vote.”

Raqqawi’s account of the mission to get the Jordanian pilot was written Jan. 2, one day after the clashes. He originally described the mission as a coalition effort to free Western hostages. That changed after he spoke with sources inside ISIS and other members of his own group who witnessed the events and told him that it was a Jordanian military operation to free their captive pilot. “I have some sources inside ISIS that confirmed it,” Raqqawi said.

“Our guys saw 20 minutes of heavy clashes in east Raqqa and we reported that,” Raqqawi said. “No one believed us but we saw them on the ground with our own eyes.”

But a few people did believe Raqqawi’s crew and within a day the story was making the rounds among security reporters and observers of the Syrian war.

On Jan. 2, the same day that Raqqawi published his report, a Pentagon spokesperson told The Washington Post that no U.S. troops were involved in any “ground operation or other form of raid” in Syria. That statement and others from the military ruled out an American-led rescue effort—but left the possibility open that American forces were involved in other ways, possibly by providing air power.

On Wednesday, three Pentagon and U.S. Central Command officials told The Daily Beast the United States was not part of any attempted rescue mission after the Jordanian pilot fell into ISIS hands, either on the ground or by air. 

“I am not aware of any operations that we were involved in or informed of,” one Pentagon official told The Daily Beast. 

Perhaps. But the U.S. and Jordan, partners in an anti-ISIS coalition that includes several other countries, have a longstanding and extremely close military relationship.

U.S. Special Operations forces train their Jordanian counterparts at a state-of-the-art facility in Amman called the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center and have been sending teams there for many years, according to a retired U.S. military official. “Not many countries can execute a rescue mission like we can. But Jordan can,” he said. 

The U.S. continues to send Special Operations trainers to the facility today, and even if they didn’t participate in the mission to rescue the Jordanian pilot, U.S. forces would almost certainly have known about it and played some role in training the Jordanian rescuers, the former official said.

U.S. forces have the authorization to train Jordanian forces but not to assist them by going into combat alongside them, the former official said. But that could change on an ad hoc basis, he noted, if the president were to specifically authorize U.S. forces to assist their Jordanian counterparts in a rescue mission. 

In fact, U.S. aircraft were involved in the first attempt to save the pilot, which came minutes Kasasbeh’s plane crashed Dec. 24. Apache helicopters flew over the suspected crash site and searched for Kasasbeh with plans to land and grab him, had he been spotted. But they never saw him.

—with additional reporting by Shane Harris, Nancy Youssef, and Noah Shachtman