IRBIL, Iraq — The posting of a video showing the grisly execution of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State, the al Qaida spinoff that controls much of Iraq and Syria, coincided with a rash of new abductions of foreigners in northern Syria.
Two Italian citizens and a Japanese man, who might have been fighting with a moderate Syrian rebel group, have been reported kidnapped during the past week. There are persistent rumors among opposition activists and rebels in the embattled northern Syrian city of Aleppo that a fourth Western national also has disappeared.
Western intelligence and diplomatic officials on Thursday confirmed that the two Italian citizens were missing and presumed abducted in northern Syria, but they declined to reveal the pair’s identities or the reasons why the two were in Syria.
The officials, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, couldn’t confirm the involvement of the Islamic State, which posted the video of Foley’s beheading on social media on Tuesday, saying it was in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes on its fighters in northern Iraq.
In the video, the executioner also warned, in a British-tinted accent, that a second U.S. journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, would be killed unless President Barack Obama halted the airstrikes.
The airstrikes, however, have continued. U.S. fighters and bombers supporting Iraqi ground forces launched six attacks on Thursday against Islamic State vehicles and multiple improvised explosive device emplacements near the Mosul Dam, according to a U.S. Central Command statement.
The Islamic State on Monday released a video of a Japanese national named Haruna Yukawa, who alternately has been described as a doctor, a photographer and a mercenary fighter for the Free Syrian Army, a U.S.-backed rebel group fighting both the extremist group and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Yukawa was captured in northern Aleppo province, according to the video, which was released through online accounts affiliated with the Islamic State. Diplomatic and humanitarian officials in the region have said that the video appears to be authentic.
Foley was abducted shortly after leaving an Internet cafe in the northern Syrian province of Idlib in November 2012.
He was taken by a group of foreign fighters who had moved into Syria the previous summer and eventually joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the name used by the Islamic State until June 30, when it declared a modern-day caliphate on the areas of northeastern Syria and northern Iraq it controls, said one of the Western intelligence officials.
Numerous journalists and aid workers have gone missing, been kidnapped and ransomed by a variety of rebel groups and even, some experts believe, by the Syrian regime itself. But the Islamic State has been by far the most prolific, abducting dozens of Westerners and reaping ransoms from European governments that some analysts and intelligence officials privately say could total tens of millions of dollars.
In the last six months, French, Spanish, Danish and Italian citizens have been ransomed by the Islamic State, according to multiple negotiators, intelligence officials and media reports. Those governments have denied paying ransoms.
The Global Post, the online news site to which Foley was a contributor, said that it had been given proof that he was alive only three months ago and had received a ransom demand late last year of $135 million. The amount also could have included payments to secure releases of other hostages, who are believed to include Sotloff, two other Americans and at least one Briton.
The Western intelligence official, citing the size of the figure and the well-publicized refusals of the American and British governments to pay ransoms, argued that the Islamic State wasn’t sincere in demanding money for Foley’s release.
“In the case of the French and Spanish, there was much quicker contact from the kidnappers than for the Americans and Brits,” said the Western intelligence official. “Would they have accepted money for Foley? I don’t know, but they took forever to admit they had him, and suddenly as the Americans began bombing ISIS targets it was clear to all of us that the American hostages had suddenly changed in value.”
The kidnapping of Sotloff, who disappeared while on assignment for Time magazine, previously had gone unreported at the request of his family and the news organization.
A Western-based Islamic State supporter, speaking in an interview, said that there are rules “considered part” of Islamic law “dealing with the ransom and execution of prisoners.”
“The leaders of the state are going to follow these rules because it defines the caliphate project they’re trying to build. And in the case of a prisoner, you’re required to give them opportunities to repent, convert or pay ransom or fines depending on the crime or situation of their capture,” said the supporter, whose identity cannot be confirmed but who has displayed an understanding of the group and access to its members in previous interviews.
First reported by London’s Guardian newspaper and confirmed by multiple sources familiar with the negotiations, the Islamic State negotiator in many of the cases appears to have been the same person, an educated-sounding person who speaks native English with a British accent. He is believed to belong to a group of British militants who appear to be responsible for guarding the Western prisoners, who at times numbered in the dozens.
An estimated 400 British citizens are believed to have joined the Islamic State.
“Contrary to the view of these guys as savages from the Arabian desert, it’s clear the negotiators are professional, composed and completely ruthless,” said the Western intelligence official. “I’m sure (U.K. and U.S. intelligence) are investigating the man seen killing Foley to determine if he’s the lead negotiator or not, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least (if he was).”