In a savage response to U.S. strikes on its fighters in northern Iraq, the Islamic State posted a video Wednesday showing the beheading of an American photojournalist, and it threatened to execute a second U.S. captive if President Barack Obama didn’t halt the attacks.
The slaying of James Foley, 40, and the video’s worldwide dissemination on social media, added a horrific new twist to a crisis in which Obama has tried to limit U.S. intervention almost three years after he withdrew the last U.S. combat troops from Iraq following the nearly nine-year American military occupation.
Foley, a freelance photojournalist from Rochester, N.H., was taken prisoner in northwest Syria in November 2012 while on assignment for the Global Post, an online news site.
McClatchy special correspondent Mitchell Prothero, who was friends with Foley, confirmed that it was him in the video.
The video was titled “Obama authorizes military operations against the Islamic State effectively placing America upon a slippery slope toward a new war front against Muslims.”
It began with a clip of the Aug. 7 nationwide television address in which Obama announced that he’d authorized limited U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State, an al Qaida spinoff that since mid-June has overrun about 50 percent of Iraq and declared a modern-day caliphate on that territory and a huge swath of neighboring Syria that it controls.
Since his announcement, U.S. fighters, bombers and unmanned drones have staged more than 60 attacks to save members of the tiny Yazidi religious faith from Islamic State assaults, protect the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region and help Iraqi forces regain control of the country’s largest dam.
The video then featured Foley delivering a statement in which he criticized U.S. policy on Iraq and asserted that he was being killed because of Obama’s decision to authorize the airstrikes. He spoke clearly, his face grimly solemn, his head shaved. He occasionally paused to swallow and only briefly did his voice waver slightly.
“I call on my family and friends and loved ones to rise up against the real killers, the U.S. government,” said Foley, who was dressed in a loose-fitting costume of orange, the same color as the uniforms worn by detainees subjected to abuse when the U.S. military ran the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. “For what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality.”
Flanked by a masked fighter clad in a black uniform as he kneeled in a bleak unidentified sunlit desert setting, Foley continued: “My message to my beloved parents: Save me some dignity and don’t accept any meager compensation for my death from the same people who effectively hammered the last nail in my coffin with their recent aerial campaign in Iraq.”
He then called on his brother, John, who he said serves in the U.S. Air Force, to “think about what you are doing.”
“Think about who made the decision to bomb Iraq recently and kill those people whoever they may have been,” he continued. “I died that day, John, when your colleagues dropped the bomb on those people. They signed my death certificate.”
The black-clad fighter, a knife gripped in one hand, then warned in slightly accented, fluent English that more Americans would be killed if there were more U.S. attacks on its fighters in the areas of northern Iraq and eastern Syria that it has overrun.
“Any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights to live in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people,” he said, pointing the knife at the camera.
The fighter then moved behind Foley’s back, pulled back his head and began sawing his neck with the knife.
There was no immediate statement from Foley’s family.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the U.S. intelligence community was working “as quickly as possible” to determine the authenticity of the video.
“If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” she said in statement.
A separate social media post featured photographs of Foley while he was kneeling and then his decapitated corpse, his blood-covered head sitting on its back.
The end of the video and a separate photograph posted on Twitter featured a man identified as Steven Joel Sotloff, who was dressed in the same orange clothing as Foley and was kneeling in what appeared to be the same desert-like setting. He was flanked by a masked, black-clad fighter holding him by his collar.
“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” said the fighter.
Sotloff, a native of Miami who wrote for Time magazine, the Christian Science Monitor and the National Interest, has been missing since August 2013. His last Twitter message, regarding the Miami Heat, was posted on Aug. 13. A voice message left at a telephone number listed for his family’s home in South Miami-Dade was not immediately returned.
It is highly unlikely that Obama will heed the Islamic State’s demand.
“Strategically, it doesn’t matter whether one America is killed. One person is not a measure of strategic importance,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former senior U.S. defense official with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Frankly, it would be irresponsible for a president to react to a single killing.”
Foley and Sotloff were among a number of foreign journalists who’ve been missing in Syria. They include Austin Tice of Houston, a freelancer who reported for McClatchy and The Washington Post, among others. He’s been missing since August 2012.
When asked about Foley’s death, Marc Tice, the father of Austin Tice, said: “The last 635 days, we have had to share a horrible nightmare, which has made us close to the Foley family and our heart goes out to them. We pray eternal rest for James’ soul and comfort and peace for his family.”
The Islamic State has released a number of journalists from European countries with histories of paying ransoms to al Qaida and its offshoots. They included French, Spanish and Danish reporters. In each case, it is widely believed _ and in some cases reported in those countries’ media _ that the ransom payments were in the tens of millions of euros.
When the U.S. airstrikes began, Islamic State fighters posted a series of statements on Twitter in which they threatened to shed American blood in revenge. The threats were seen as referring to terrorist attacks, but they apparently were referring to Foley and Sotloff.
Foley wrote his final story for the Global Post on Oct. 16, 2012, reporting on fighting between rebels and government forces in the northeastern Syrian city of Aleppo.
Anita Kumar, Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy special correspondent Mitchell Prothero and Dan Chang of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.