UK 'urgently investigates' suspected British executioner in Foley video

The Islamic State member who was shown beheading US journalist James Foley in a video spoke with a British accent. Foley went missing in Syria in 2012.

Steven Senne/AP/File
Journalist James Foley poses for a photo during an interview with The Associated Press, in Boston, May 27, 2011. A video by Islamic State militants that purports to show the killing of Foley by the militant group was released Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014. Foley, from Rochester, N.H., went missing in 2012 in northern Syria while on assignment for Agence France-Press and the Boston-based media company GlobalPost.

British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond says that the government is "urgently investigating" the identity of the apparently British executioner of US reporter James Foley, whose death was shown in a video released by members of the self-declared Islamic State in Syria. The IS member's apparent ties to Britain highlight increasing concern in the West about the radicalization of European and American nationals by jihadi groups and the threat they pose if they return home.

The video published overnight on YouTube shows the hooded, black-clad IS member speaking extensively in both English and Arabic before killing an orange-jumpsuited man described as "James Wright Foley, an American citizen." In what the Daily Telegraph describes as a London accent, the executioner says that the US has "been at the forefront of the aggression towards the Islamic State," before killing Foley.

Foley went missing in Syria in November 2012, after militants stopped his car, reports Foster's Daily Democrat, a newspaper covering his hometown of Rochester, N.H. He had reported from several conflict zones in the Middle East, including Syria, Iraq, and Libya, where he was also briefly held by kidnappers. Foley was freelancing for Agence France-Presse and the GlobalPost when he was taken in Syria.

After killing Foley, the executioner in the IS video shows and threatens to kill a second US reporter, Steven Sotloff, if the US continues military strikes against IS forces. Mr. Sotloff went missing in Aleppo in August 2013, reports the Independent, and has reported for TIME, the National Interest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

"We are very concerned by the apparent fact that the murderer in question is British," Mr. Hammond told the Telegraph. "We are urgently investigating."

"We haven't absolutely verified it yet, but all the hallmarks point to it being genuine – an appalling example of the brutality" of IS, Hammond added in an interview with the BBC. "We've been saying for a very long time that there are a significant number of British nationals both in Syria and Iraq operating with extremist organizations. That is one of the reasons why this organization [IS] represents such a direct threat to the UK's national security."

If the IS executioner's identity as a Briton is confirmed, it would just be the latest example of Westerners joining up with Islamic militants fighting in Syria. The Christian Science Monitor's Sara Miller Llana reported last month that "hundreds of young people [are] fleeing homes across Europe to join rebel groups fighting in the Middle East, creating a major new security threat for the West and emotional anguish in living rooms from London to Berlin. "

Driven by everything from anger at the mass killing of Muslims by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to a sense of idealism about joining a possible new religious state, young people are leaving the security of their families, their educations, and often their suburban lifestyles to support jihadi groups. Some of them are joining rebel movements linked to Al Qaeda. Others are aligning with even more-radical Islamic cells.

The young people are departing in large enough numbers to stir concern in top policy circles across Europe. According to figures from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, as many as 2,000 Europeans have already fled to Syria. The French government estimates 700 young people have left from France alone – the largest number from any country on the Continent. 

Up to 500 youths from Britain have joined Syrian rebel groups, more than 300 from Germany, and at least 100 from the Netherlands. Many Belgian teens have fled, too, as well as dozens from the United States. An American from Florida was linked to a suicide bombing in Syria in May. 

Some of the young people are motivated by a deep frustration that the West failed to respond to the strife in Syria, which has claimed more than 160,000 lives in the past three years. Social media have made them easy prey for recruiters fighting for various factions, including the Islamic State (previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which is seeking to create its own caliphate. The recruiters promise a life of grandeur.

Similar concerns were stirred last week when an Australian jihadi published photos of his primary-school-age son holding a severed head, with the caption "thats my boy."

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