“There’s so much odd about it,” said Will McCants, a former government adviser on violent extremism who’s the founder of the Jihadica website. “There’s no production level, no title page, nothing to indicate it was an al Qaida group. This is just a raw clip of footage.”
There’s no time stamp or other clue as to when the video was recorded. Tice is shown with long hair and a beard; in photos he posted on his Facebook page Aug. 3, he’s clean-shaven.
The jumpy, amateurish footage begins with a shot of a slow-moving convoy of three vehicles snaking through hilly scrubland; the location isn’t given. It cuts abruptly to a noisy scene of masked gunmen roughly escorting Tice, who’s wearing disheveled clothing and a black blindfold, uphill to a clearing, where he kneels and attempts to recite a Muslim prayer in broken Arabic. A militant holding what appears to be a rocket-propelled grenade launcher can be seen in the background.
“Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus,” Tice says in English, appearing out of breath and frightened and placing his head on the arm of one of his captors.
Murad Batal al Shishani, a London-based analyst of jihadists who’s monitored extremist groups since the early 1990s, said many aspects of the video didn’t jibe with the communiques that al Qaida-style extremists typically sent out. The call-and-response rhythm in the cries of “God is great” seems off, he said, and it would be unusual for jihadists to include Tice’s mangled prayer, or to release such a low-quality clip when they’re known for slickly produced videos distributed via their own media wings.
"If it was a jihadi video, they have their own platforms. They wouldn’t release it on YouTube,” Shishani said.
The YouTube user who posted the video hadn’t previously uploaded to the site, suggesting that the account may have been created to disseminate the video. Analysts also pointed out that the captions include English and Arabic, which would be unusual – but not unheard of – for a jihadist group.
The clip was later shared on a Facebook page and Twitter account associated with a group called “the Media Channel for Assad’s Syria,” which echoes the government’s line that opposition rebels are terrorists intent on destabilizing Syria. The group’s tweet reads, “Important, please publish and share our clip on the truth about the disappearance of the American journalist Austin Tice.”
The Facebook page posting asserts that “the American journalist Austin Tice is with the Nusra Front gangs and al Qaida in Syria,” a reference to Jabhat al Nusra, a jihadist group that’s part of the opposition forces fighting Assad’s troops. For weeks, U.S. analysts have sounded alarm about the presence of an avowed jihadist group on the battlefield, a development that rattles not only Assad’s regime but also the non-Islamist Syrian opposition and its Western allies.
Jabhat al Nusra boasts a sophisticated media wing that produces a Twitter feed and videos that are clearly labeled and edited. The group repeatedly has said that any release outside its established platforms should be considered fake, said Aaron Zelin, who researches militants for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and blogs about them at Jihadology.net.