WASHINGTON – Extremists with the Islamic State group are threatening to kill another hostage after beheading American journalist James Foley in a horrifying act of revenge for U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, U.S. officials say.
The White House must now weigh the risks of adopting an aggressive policy to destroy the Islamic State against resisting any action that could result in the death of another American.
It will also confront the potentially necessary step of pursuing the Islamic State in Syria, where President Barack Obama has resisted launching airstrikes or deploying significant American firepower.
U.S. officials confirmed a grisly video released Tuesday showing Islamic State militants beheading Foley.
Foley’s family confirmed his death in a statement posted on a Facebook page that was created to rally support for his release, saying they “have never been prouder of him.”
“He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people,” said the statement, which was attributed to Foley’s mother, Diane Foley.
She implored the militants to spare the lives of other hostages: “Like Jim, they are innocents. They have no control over American government policy in Iraq, Syria or anywhere in the world.”
Foley, 40, from Rochester, New Hampshire, went missing in northern Syria in November 2012 while freelancing for Agence France-Presse and the Boston-based media company GlobalPost. The car he was riding in was stopped by four militants in a contested battle zone that both Sunni rebel fighters and government forces were trying to control. He had not been heard from since.
The beheading marks the first time the Islamic State has killed an American citizen since the Syrian conflict broke out in March 2011, upping the stakes in an increasingly chaotic and multilayered war. The killing is likely to complicate U.S. involvement in Iraq and the Obama administration’s efforts to contain the group as it expands in both Iraq and Syria.
The group is the heir apparent of the militancy known as al-Qaida in Iraq, which beheaded many of its victims, including American businessman Nicholas Berg in 2004.
The video released on websites Tuesday appears to show the increasing sophistication of the Islamic State group’s media unit and begins with scenes of Obama explaining his decision to order airstrikes.
It then cuts to a balding man in an orange jumpsuit kneeling in the desert next to a black-clad militant with a knife to his throat. Foley’s name appears in both English and Arabic graphics on screen. After the captive speaks, the masked man is shown apparently beginning to cut at his neck; the video fades to black before the beheading is completed. The next shot appears to show the captive lying dead on the ground, his head on his body.
At the end of the video, a militant shows a second man, identified as another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, and warns that he could be the next captive killed.
Sotloff was kidnapped near the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013. He had freelanced for the magazines Time and the National Interest and for the site MediaLine.
One U.S. official said the video appeared to be authentic, and two other U.S. officials said the victim was Foley.
Several senior U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the situation said the Islamic State very recently threatened to kill Foley to avenge the crushing airstrikes over the past two weeks against militants advancing on Mount Sinjar, the Mosul dam and the Kurdish capital of Irbil. Both areas are in northern Iraq, which has become a key front for the Islamic State as its fighters travel to and from Syria.
Since Aug. 8, the U.S. military has struck at least 70 Islamic State targets, including security checkpoints, vehicles and weapons caches. It is not clear how many militants have been killed in the strikes, some likely were.
The Islamic State is so ruthless in its attacks against all people whom it considers heretics or infidels that it has been disowned by al-Qaida’s leaders. In seeking to impose its harsh interpretation of Islamic law in the lands it is trying to control, the extremists have slain soldiers and civilians alike in horrifying ways — including mounting the decapitated heads of some of its victims on spikes.
Saudi Arabia’s top cleric said Tuesday that extremism and the ideologies of groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida are Islam’s No. 1 enemy and that Muslims have been their first victims.
Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz al-Sheik also said in his public statement that terrorism has no place in Islam and that the danger of extremists lies in their use of Islamic slogans to justify their actions that divide people.
“These foreign groups do not belong to Islam and Muslims adhering to it,” he said, adding that unity around the word and rank of Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince is necessary to avoid the type of chaos seen elsewhere in the region.
King Abdullah has been pressing clerics to publicly condemn Islamic extremist groups since the government made it illegal for citizens to fight in conflicts abroad. Clerics who do not condemn terrorism in sermons could face penalties such as having their licenses to preach revoked.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists estimated Tuesday that about 20 journalists are missing in Syria. It has not released their nationalities. In its annual report in November, it concluded that the missing journalists were either being held and threatened with death by extremists, or had been taken captive by gangs seeking ransom.
The group’s report described the widespread seizure of journalists as unprecedented and largely unreported by news organizations in the hope that keeping the kidnappings out of public view may help in the captives’ release.