FOREIGN Secretary Philip Hammond declared yesterday that every possible option will be explored to protect a Scottish hostage whose life is being threatened by the same jihadists who have already killed two American journalists.
The 44-year-old aid worker appeared in a video released by Islamic State (IS) extremists on Tuesday. His family has asked for him not to be named.
At the end of the chilling film, a masked knifeman stands above the captive Scot, warning countries entering an “evil alliance” with the United States against IS to “back off”.
Speaking after a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee yesterday, Mr Hammond said the latest video – which depicts the murder of American Steven Sotloff by a jihadist with a British accent – appeared genuine.
Mr Hammond said the government was doing everything it could to reassure the family of the Scottish hostage shown in the video. He added that the government had been aware of the Scot for “some time”.
“You wouldn’t expect me to discuss the various options that we will be considering but I can assure you that we will look at every possible option to protect this person,” he said.
He acknowledged that an earlier attempt by US special forces to rescue the hostages – thought to be held by IS in Syria – had ended in failure.
Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron likened the battle against Islamic extremism to the Cold War.
Mr Cameron said: “It is not enough to target those who preach violent extremism – we need to go after those that promote the extremist narrative and life view that gives the terrorists and the men of violence support for what they do.
“It is not unlike the Cold War, where we did not just pursue those who wanted to do us such harm; we also had to challenge all those who gave them succour. That is what we need to do in a struggle which, as I have said, I think will last for decades.”
The Foreign Office has asked the media not to name the Scottish hostage or publish details of his life or work, saying that to do so could increase the danger he is in.
He is understood to have been abducted in Syria last year, along with an Italian aid worker and two Syrians, all of whom have since been freed.
The Scottish Government declined to comment, other than to say it was “engaging regularly” with the UK government.
The Prime Minister said the UK would not be “cowed” by the threats being made by IS.
Denouncing Mr Sotloff’s murder as “sickening and brutal”, he told MPs: “I am sure that the whole House and the whole country will join with me in condemning the sickening and brutal murder of another American hostage and share our shock and anger that it again appears to have been carried out by a British citizen.
“All our thoughts are with the British hostage and his family. Their ordeal is unimaginable.”
He added: “It is important that we are clear about the nature of the threat we are facing. It makes no distinction between cultures, countries and religions. There is no way to appease it.
“The only way to defeat it is to stand firm and to send a very straightforward message – a country like ours will not be cowed by these barbaric killers.
“If they think that we will weaken in the face of their threats, they are wrong. It will have the opposite effect. We will be more forthright in the defence of the values – liberty under the rule of law, freedom, democracy – that we hold dear, and I’m sure a united message to that effect will go forward from this House today.”
The masked jihadist in the video is thought to be the same UK citizen – nicknamed “jihadi John” – who featured in a video of the murder of another US journalist, James Foley, which was released last month.
The masked man is thought to be a former rapper raised in London’s affluent Maida Vale. He is just one of hundreds of UK citizens believed to have travelled to the Middle East to take up arms for IS.
Mr Hammond stressed the government would not change its overall strategy, nor be deflected from launching air strikes against the group.
“As the Prime Minister said, we will look very carefully at the options available to us to support the legitimate government of Iraq and Kurdistan in defending themselves from IS,” he said.
“If we judge that air strikes could be beneficial, could be the best way to do that, then we will certainly consider them but we have made no decision to do so at the moment.”
Earlier this week, Mr Cameron outlined a series of measures designed to prevent Britons travelling to Iraq and Syria to take up arms and to stop those who already have from returning. They include powers to allow police to seize passports and new measures which will allow the authorities to geographically relocate those suspected of being involved in terrorism.
Speaking in the Commons, Labour leader Ed Miliband offered Mr Cameron his support. He said he joined the “universal sense of revulsion” at Mr Sotloff’s killing and shared “deep concern” for the Scottish hostage.
He said: “Events like this must strengthen, not weaken, our resolve to defeat them and you can be assured of our full support in standing firm against them.”
But a senior Labour source said the government was “all over the place” on its proposals on domestic security.
“The Prime Minister confirmed he wants to go ahead with relocation powers,” said the source. “That is very different from what the Deputy Prime Minister said earlier this week. In the Prime Minister’s answer on stopping British citizens returning to the country, he still couldn’t be clear on what ‘exclude’ actually means.”
President Barack Obama denounced Mr Sotloff’s murder as “a horrific act of violence” and insisted the US would not be “intimidated” by militants’ threats.
He said: “Whatever these murderers think they will achieve by killing innocent Americans like Steven, they have already failed.
“They have failed because, like people round the world, Americans are repulsed by their barbarism. We will not be intimidated. Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists. Those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget, that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”
Dr Gilbert Ramsay: This Islamic force is a monster that has consumed even those who created it
The organisation which today refers to itself as Tanzeem al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (the Islamic State Organisation), originated in the al-Qaeda franchise established in 2004 by the notorious jihadist Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi.
Back then, its name was al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers.
It was not long, however, before relations with the group’s parent organisation became strained. Al-Zarqawi’s predilection for indiscriminate killing and his fanatically anti-Shiite agenda clashed with the more inclusive strategy preferred by Osama bin Laden.
In 2005, the extent of these misgivings was made known with the discovery of a letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri – then al-Qaeda’s second in command – in which he criticised the subordinate group’s “sectarian and chauvinist” approach, which he thought risked alienating the masses.
After the death of al-Zarqawi, the group’s leaders began to adopt a lower media profile.
Even so, al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers went on in 2006 to relaunch itself as The Islamic State of Iraq.
The move was controversial because many thought it presumptuous for an organisation which clearly did not have a sufficient level of territorial control to claim to already be the state it was fighting for. Indeed, even as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) declared itself, its days already appeared to be numbered.
Precisely as al-Zawahiri had feared, the group’s brutality and intolerance had exhausted the patience of Sunni Iraqis.
When Iraq’s occupying coalition adopted a new strategy of supporting this tribal “awakening”, the group was defeated.
Driven from the territories it controlled, it survived as an underground network, still capable of enormously lethal terrorist attacks but no longer – so it seemed – an existential threat to the Iraqi state.
The Syrian civil war reignited the group’s fortunes.
Early in the conflict, ISI was instrumental in helping to set up a new, Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda called Jabhat al-Nusra.
When, however, the new group began to show signs of independence, ISI responded by insisting that the two groups merge. The consequence of this takeover attempt was to force ISI to finally sever its relations with al-Qaeda. It also led to the formation of a new, border-straddling group: The Islamic State in Iraq and the Lands of Al-Sham (Isis).
Isis would seem to have succeeded for a number of reasons. In contrast to other Syrian groups which have made toppling the Syrian regime their primary objective, Isis has focused instead on the establishment and consolidation of a new state, by seizing territory in remote areas of Syria whose recapture is a relatively low priority for the Syrian government.
This has led some to articulate conspiracy theories claiming that the Syrian government has actively colluded with Isis, but this seems not to be the case.
While the Syrian government did various things to facilitate the Sunni insurgency when it was a case of brother Ba’athists fighting foreign invaders in Iraq, it seems today to be as alarmed by Isis as anyone else.
The group’s success in Iraq has certainly had much to do with the alienation of Sunnis, the revival of non- al-Qaeda Sunni militia groups, and the hollowing out and demoralisation of the multi-confessional Iraqi army.
But it seems to be inaccurate to suggest that Isis is now a mere front for these interests – which it seems to be trying to co-opt or liquidate with some success.
Self-funded, self-motivated and very self-confident, the Islamic State Organisation is a monster which has long since turned on everyone who could claim any stake in creating it.
• Dr Gilbert Ramsay is a lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University