ISLAMIC militants who beheaded an American journalist made fresh threats last night to kill a second hostage unless president Barack Obama orders an end to air strikes in Iraq.
James Foley, a journalist working for Agence France-Presse in Syria, was murdered on-screen by a jihadist with a British accent in revenge for US air strikes in northern Iraq, according to a video posted by the Islamic State (IS) group.
The video ended with footage of a second man, identified as American journalist Steven Sotloff, and a warning that he would be the next captive to be killed unless the US president calls an immediate halt to military action.
His life depends on Mr Obama’s “next decision”, the IS fighter said.
Mr Sotloff, a freelance reporter who worked for publications including Time magazine, was kidnapped near the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013.
Last night it was reported that the militant who killed Mr Foley is one of three British jihadists thought to be the main captors of foreign nationals being held in Raqqa, a stronghold of IS rebels.
It was also claimed the man, believed to be from London, was the main rebel negotiator during talks earlier this year to release 11 IS hostages who were handed to Turkish officials after ransom demands were met, suggesting a level of seniority in the organisation.
Yesterday, there was international outrage at Mr Foley’s barbaric killing. Prime Minister David Cameron, who returned from holiday in Cornwall to chair an emergency meeting with ministers and intelligence officials, called the murder “shocking and depraved”. Later, he said it seemed “increasingly likely” that a British jihadist carried out the murder. But the Prime
Minister insisted the act would not change the government’s approach to tackling the extremist group in Iraq and Syria.
He said: “Let me condemn the barbaric and brutal act that has taken place and let’s be clear what this act is – it is an act of murder, and murder without any justification.
“We have not identified the individual responsible but from what we have seen, it looks increasingly likely that it is a British citizen.
“This is deeply shocking. But we know that far too many British citizens have travelled to Iraq and travelled to Syria to take part in extremism and violence. And what we must do is redouble all our efforts to stop people from going.
“To take away the passports of those contemplating travel, to arrest and prosecute those who take part in this extremism and violence. To take extremist material off the internet and do everything we can to keep our people safe. And that is what this government will do.”
The French government branded it a “cowardly assassination”.
Last night, president Obama denounced the killing and pledged that the US will “do what is necessary to see that justice is done”. He condemned the IS militants who carried out the attack as “a cancer” and said “their ideology is bankrupt”.
“The whole world is appalled by the brutal murder of James Foley,” Mr Obama said. “We will continue to confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with a sense of hope and stability.
“That’s what Jim Foley stood for. A man who lived his work, who courageously told the stories of his fellow human beings and who was liked and loved by friends and family. All of us feel the ache of his absence. All of us mourn his loss.”
Hours after the release of the video, which was verified as authentic by the White House, Mr Foley’s family in New Hampshire issued their own statement, saying they “have never been prouder of him”.
His mother, Diane Foley, said: “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
The film, entitled A Message to America, shows Mr Foley, 40, an experienced foreign correspondent who went missing in Syria in 2012, kneeling in a desert-like environment at an unknown location as an IS fighter stands by his side, dressed in black and with his face covered.
Pausing and taking deep breaths, the distraught journalist says he wants to call on family, friends and loved ones to “rise up against my real killers, the US government” – as the IS fighter stands next to him brandishing a knife. The killer, who has an English accent, accuses America of “aggression towards the Islamic state”, adding: “You have plotted against us and gone far out of your way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs.”
Scotland Yard has urged people to avoid spreading the video through Twitter and Facebook, warning that to do so could be a criminal offence. Yesterday Dick Costolo, chief executive of Twitter, said his company was “actively suspending accounts” that appeared to be forwarding the graphic images.
The beheading marks the first time that IS has killed a US citizen since the Syrian conflict broke out in March 2011, upping the stakes in an increasingly chaotic and multi-layered war.
It follows a number of American air strikes in northern Iraq against the militants who were advancing on Mount Sinjar, the strategically important Mosul dam and the Kurdish capital of Irbil.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says that more than 80 journalists have been abducted in Syria, and estimates that around 20 are currently missing there. Their nationalities have not been released.