The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is claiming to have beheaded a second American journalist, an atrocity that apparently involved the same terrorist who emerged as the masked face behind the first killing.
“I’m back, Obama,” a man in black says in British-accented English, during a video that circulated widely on Tuesday. Holding a knife in his left hand, he adds that “just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knives will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
The video suggests a third man, a British hostage, will soon emerge as another victim. The man in the mask also promises future decapitations involving nationals of other countries that join “this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State.”
The captive shown in the latest video is Steven Sotloff, a 31-year-old freelance war correspondent who disappeared in Syria last year. Because the Islamic State had promised last month to kill him, his mother, Shirley, publicly begged for his release in her own video released last week.
While U.S. State Department officials said Mr. Sotloff’s death remains unconfirmed, a spokesman for the man’s family and world leaders have suggested they believe it is legitimate. “Appalled to learn of the barbaric and unacceptable death of Steven Sotloff,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Twitter from London.
The savage attacks are occurring against the backdrop of a widening and complex war zone straddling Syria and Iraq. This conflict is drawing hundreds of would-be jihadi fighters from the West, while leaving Western leaders with few attractive policy options – or even trustworthy regional allies.
Islamic State is an al-Qaeda offshoot that had first coalesced and fractured during the past decade’s U.S. occupation of Iraq. Then the Syrian civil war – a three-year-old conflict that the United Nations now says is responsible for nearly 200,000 deaths – gave the group a new lease on life.
The group’s notoriety has grown greatly over the summer, as its Islamist fighters boasted of crucifying and decapitating “infidels” who stood in the way of their campaign to gain ground in Iraq.
After Iraq’s army fell apart in its bid to battle the Islamist insurgents, U.S. government warplanes began bombing the group last month. Over the past week, a Canadian Forces transport plane has been ferrying weaponry from Europe to Iraq-based security forces that are fighting the group.
In mid-August, the Islamic State released a video showing the killing of U.S. journalist James Foley, who was captured last year in Syria. Before his death, he was made to kneel while wearing an orange jumpsuit, as a black-clad captor looms over him wielding a knife in his left hand. The actual killing is not shown.
These same visuals are recapped in the video showing Mr. Sotloff’s apparent killing, first released Tuesday by SITE Intelligence. “The same masked fighter who appeared in the video with James Wright Foley stands with Sotloff,” said SITE, a group of U.S.-based jihadi watchers, in a statement.
The video suggests the next victim will be a British national named David Haines. According to media reports, he is a former soldier and Croatia-based businessman who had been working with an aid group when captured in Syria last year.
Much speculation has emerged about the identity of the man who claims to be behind the killings, a British-accented terrorist feared to be among more than 500 British nationals who have joined Islamic State.
Many news accounts have speculated that “Jihadi John,” as British tabloids have dubbed him, is a former London-based rapper, though officials have yet to confirm this.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who this week announced plans for tougher anti-terrorism laws, also condemned the apparent killing of Mr. Sotloff. “If verified, this is a despicable and barbaric murder,” his Twitter account said.
According to reports, Mr. Sotloff went to schools in New Hampshire and Florida, before becoming a freelance journalist. He reported for Time and Foreign Policy and other media, including a website known as The Long War Journal.
“He was certainly an enterprising reporter,” Bill Roggio, the editor of the latter site, said in an interview. “He was more than willing to go to dangerous places to get the story.”