WASHINGTON — In a savage response to U.S. strikes on its fighters in northern Iraq, the Islamic State posted a video Wednesday showing the beheading of an American photojournalist, and it threatened to execute a second U.S. captive if President Obama didn’t halt the attacks.
The slaying of James Foley, 40, and the video’s worldwide dissemination on social media, added a horrific new twist to a crisis in which Obama has tried to limit U.S. intervention almost three years after he withdrew the last U.S. combat troops from Iraq following the nearly nine-year American military occupation.
Two U.S. officials said they believe Foley was the victim executed by Islamic State extremists in the video. In a statement posted on a webpage that was created to rally support for his release, Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, said the journalist “gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Foley, a freelance photojournalist from Rochester, N.H., was taken prisoner in northwest Syria in November 2012 while on assignment for the Global Post, an online news site.
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McClatchy special correspondent Mitchell Prothero, who was friends with Foley, confirmed that it was him in the video.
The video was titled “Obama authorizes military operations against the Islamic State effectively placing America upon a slippery slope toward a new war front against Muslims.”
It began with a clip of the Aug. 7 nationwide television address in which Obama announced that he’d authorized limited U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State, an al-Qaida spinoff that since mid-June has overrun about 50 percent of Iraq and declared a modern-day caliphate on that territory and a huge swath of neighboring Syria that it controls.
Since his announcement, U.S. fighters, bombers and unmanned drones have staged more than 60 attacks to save members of the tiny Yazidi religious faith from Islamic State assaults, protect the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region and help Iraqi forces regain control of the country’s largest dam.
The video then featured Foley delivering a statement in which he criticized U.S. policy on Iraq and asserted that he was being killed because of Obama’s decision to authorize the airstrikes. He spoke clearly, his face grimly solemn, his head shaved. He occasionally paused to swallow and only briefly did his voice waver slightly.
“I call on my family and friends and loved ones to rise up against the real killers, the U.S. government,” said Foley, who was dressed in loosefitting orange clothing. “For what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality.”
Flanked by a masked fighter clad in a black uniform as he knelt in a bleak unidentified sunlit desert setting, Foley continued: “My message to my beloved parents: Save me some dignity and don’t accept any meager compensation for my death from the same people who effectively hammered the last nail in my coffin with their recent aerial campaign in Iraq.”
He then called on his brother, John, who he said serves in the U.S. Air Force, to “think about what you are doing.”
“Think about who made the decision to bomb Iraq recently and kill those people whoever they may have been,” he continued. “I died that day, John, when your colleagues dropped the bomb on those people. They signed my death certificate.”
The black-clad fighter, a knife gripped in one hand, then warned in slightly accented, fluent English that more Americans would be killed if there were more U.S. attacks on its fighters in the areas of northern Iraq and eastern Syria that it has overrun.
“Any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights to live in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people,” he said, pointing the knife at the camera. The fighter then beheads Foley from behind.
The end of the video and a separate photograph posted on Twitter featured a man identified as Steven Joel Sotloff, who was dressed in the same orange clothing as Foley and was kneeling in what appeared to be the same desertlike setting. He was flanked by a masked, black-clad fighter holding him by his collar.
“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” said the fighter.
Sotloff, a native of Miami who wrote for Time magazine, The Christian Science Monitor and the National Interest, has been missing since August 2013.
Foley and Sotloff were among a number of foreign journalists who’ve been missing in Syria. They include Austin Tice, of Houston, a freelancer who reported for McClatchy and The Washington Post, among others. He’s been missing since August 2012.
The Islamic State has released a number of journalists from European countries with histories of paying ransoms to al-Qaida and its offshoots.
Foley had previously been captured and held six weeks while covering the uprising in Libya. He was snatched again in Syria in November 2012 when the car he was riding in was stopped by four extremists in a battle zone that Sunni rebel fighters and government forces were trying to control.
Foley grew up in New Hampshire and studied history at Marquette University. He later taught in Arizona, Massachusetts and Chicago before switching careers to become a journalist, which he viewed as a calling.
Includes material from The Associated Press