In a savage response to U.S. strikes on its fighters in northern Iraq, the Islamic State on Wednesday posted a video showing the beheading of an American news photographer, and it threatened to execute a second U.S. captive — a native of Miami identified as Steven Joel Sotloff — if President Barack Obama didn’t halt the attacks.
The video, posted on YouTube and disseminated on other social media, added a horrific new twist to a crisis in which Obama has struggled 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.
The man who was killed was identified as James Foley, 40, a freelance photojournalist from Rochester, N.H., who was taken prisoner in northwest Syria in November 2012 while on assignment for the Global Post, an online news site. 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.”
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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 to 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.
“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 a loose-fitting costume of orange, the same color as the uniforms worn by detainees subjected to abuse when the U.S. military ran the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. “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 kneeled in a bleak unidentified 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.”
In a slightly quivering voice, Foley 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 English that more Americans would be killed if there were more U.S. attacks on the Islamic State fighters.
“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 moved behind Foley’s back, pulled back his head and began sawing his neck with the knife.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the U.S. intelligence community was working “as quickly as possible” to determine the authenticity of the video.
“If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” she said in statement.
A separate social media post featured photographs of Foley while he was kneeling and then his decapitated corpse, his blood-covered head sitting on its back.
In a separate posting on Twitter, a picture showed a man identified as Sotloff dressed in the same orange clothing and kneeling in a desert-like setting. He was flanked by a masked, black-clad fighter holding him by his collar.
“The life of Steven Joel Sotloff depends on Obama’s next move,” said a statement in Arabic at the bottom of the picture.
Sotloff, a native of Miami who wrote for Time magazine and the National Interest, has been missing since August 2012.
Sotloff appears at the end of the video, his head shaved and wearing an orange jump suit. His hands appear to be bound behind his back. The ISIS executioner holds up Sotloff by the collar and delivers a message: “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision.”
A correspondent for TIME magazine, the Christian Science Monitor and other publications, Sotloff reportedly was kidnapped in mid-2013. His last Twitter message, regarding the Miami Heat, was posted on Aug. 13. A voice message left at a telephone number listed for his family's home in South Miami-Dade was not immediately returned.
Sotloff's Twitter account indicates he spent a significant amount of time in the Middle East, and encountered danger before. In September 2012, Sotloff posted a video to his Twitter account showing what he alleges were Syrian fighter jets bombing Aleppo.
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.
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @JonathanLanday.
Iraqi forces battle Islamic State
Iraqi forces pushed north Tuesday in an attempt to recapture the central Iraq town of Tikrit from Islamic State militants who have been occupying it since mid-June, only to see the assault stymied by snipers, roadside bombs, and fierce resistance from the rebels.
By midday, the Iraq army units were bogged down at least six miles from the entrance to the city and appeared to be withdrawing south toward the government-held city of Samara, according to local residents and Kurdish security officials.
The surprising move to retake Tikrit, 110 miles north of Baghdad and symbolically important as the former hometown of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, came just a day after a combined force of Iraqi special forces and peshmerga fighters from the autonomous Kurdish region — backed by heavy U.S. air support — retook the Mosul Dam, a crucial facility that supplies agricultural water and hydroelectricity to much of northern Iraq.