LONDON/BAGHDAD – A British Muslim leader has called for action to tackle a jihadi subculture after an Islamic State video showed a suspected Briton beheading U.S. journalist James Foley in Syria.
In Washington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department had opened a criminal investigation into the death of Foley, who had been held hostage by Islamic State militants. The video featured a masked man speaking English with a British accent.
As Western officials tried to identify the man, the Muslim Council of Britain denounced Foley’s “abhorrent murder” and one of its advisers urged anyone who knows who the killer is to contact the police.
Horror at the video spanned from the West to Baghdad, where Iraqis asked why the United States and its allies had not cracked down on Islamic State fighters long before they captured large areas of Syria and Iraq.
The video of Foley’s murder surfaced on the Internet on Tuesday, and officials in Washington revealed that U.S. special forces had tried unsuccessfully to rescue him along with other American hostages earlier this summer. A firefight between the U.S. forces and Islamic State militants during the rescue attempt appeared to be the first direct ground engagement between the two sides.
The video caused particular shock in Britain, which is home to about 2.7 million Muslims, although the hundreds of British men fighting with the militants in Iraq and Syria have created concern for some time. Iqbal Sacranie, an adviser to the Muslim Council of Britain, said Britons from across the country’s communities had to stop young men being seduced by radical ideologies.
“This subculture of this ‘jihadi cool,’ as they call it in the media, within the margins of society . . . that is the real challenge,” he told BBC Radio on Thursday. “This is a problem that affects all of us and it will only be dealt with more effectively if all of us are working together on this.”
Sacranie said the Muslim community was pushing the message that “this is totally alien to Islam” and families were reporting to the authorities when they discovered their sons had headed to the Middle East to fight. He also told London’s Evening Standard newspaper that anyone who recognized the man in the video had a duty to contact police.
The Guardian newspaper said a former hostage had identified the masked man as the leader of three Britons who guarded foreign hostages in the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s stronghold in eastern Syria. The BBC also reported that hostages had given their three captors nicknames after members of the Beatles — John, Paul and Ringo.
Ghaffar Hussain, managing director of the counterextremism Quilliam Foundation, said it was almost inevitable that men who had fought in Syria would return to plan attacks in Europe. “It is disturbing that people born and raised in Britain and who have gone to the same schools as us could have been essentially indoctrinated to the extent where they can justify raping women and chopping heads off,” he said.
Four British Islamists, two of whom had been to al-Qaida training camps in Pakistan, killed 52 people in suicide bomb attacks on London in July 2005, and Britons have appeared in graphic Islamist videos before.
Until recently, Islamic State concentrated on establishing its self-proclaimed caliphate in areas of Syria and Iraq it has seized rather than on attacking the West like al-Qaida, the group from which it split.
But U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to order airstrikes on Islamic State fighters in Iraq appears to have changed this. The video also showed images of another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, whose fate the group said depends on how the United States acts in Iraq. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the masked man says in the video.
In Baghdad, Iraqis expressed their horror at the video but questioned Western strategy toward the Islamic State, which advanced out of Syria in June to capture several major Iraqi cities including Mosul before the United States intervened militarily.
“The killing is the crime of all crimes, whoever the victim is,” said Kareem Jamal, 55, an Arabic-language teacher at a secondary school. “I wish the world superpowers had fought these criminal groups in their incubators. The U.S. should have hit Islamic State when they first appeared in Syria. Why didn’t they hit them when they first entered Mosul and other cities?”
Ali Mohammed Saeed, a 35-year-old doctor, called for deeper Western involvement almost three years after U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq. “Air strikes are not enough, those criminals need ground troops to kill them and kick them out.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron has ruled out sending troops to step up Britain’s military involvement in Iraq, which has so far been focused on delivering supplies to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State and using jets to conduct surveillance.