Voice and other clues sought to trace journalist’s killer
British and United States intelligence officials are urgently seeking to identify the masked killer shown on an Islamic State video beheading the journalist James Foley.
The man spoke with a London or southern English accent and has been described by a former hostage as the ringleader of three Britons in charge of kidnap victims at the militant Islamist group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
The former captive, freed after being held for a year, told The Guardian newspaper he knew the man as “John” and that he and his accomplices were nicknamed “The Beatles” by other hostages because of their nationality.
He said John was “intelligent, educated and a devout believer in radical Islamic teachings” and played a crucial role in talks this year leading to the release of 11 hostages after payment of ransom.
Although the killer in the video took care to conceal his face, the five-minute recording offered some clues.
Apart from his voice, which British and US officials will try to identify using voice recognition saftware, he held his knife in his left hand and a rifle was slung over his left shoulder, though these details may have been intended to confuse.
But the video’s spread on social media, also makes it possible that relatives, friends or acquaintances from the UK will readily put a name to the voice.
Iqbal Sacranie, an adviser to the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest Muslim umbrella group in the country, told London’s Evening Standard newspaper that anyone who recognised the man had a duty to contact police.
Britain’s Quilliam Foundation, which campaigns against extremism, cautioned against expectations of an early breakthrough.
“I do believe he will be identified because the extent of resources expended by British and American intelligence services will be significant,” said Charlie Cooper, a Quilliam researcher. “But I think it’s probably going to take a long time to know with any certainty.”
One British linguistics expert, Prof Paul Kerswill, from York University, told media he believed the man used “multicultural London English”.
“He probably has a foreign language background but it sounds like multicultural London English, which is people from all kinds of backgrounds who mix in the East End, a new kind of cockney.”
Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, said investigators would use basic detective techniques to narrow down the field of suspects before voice recognition or other sophisticated technology came into play.
He said most western militants in Syria had Facebook or Twitter accounts, on which they posted pictures of themselves and gave away other clues to their origins, such as a favourite football team.
“Just because they are Islamic extremists and behead people doesn’t meant they don’t talk about football clubs,” he said.
He said online photos could be analysed to determine height, weight, eye colour and other information.
He said that even though the militants, most in their teens and 20s, knew they should be careful, they were so ingrained in online culture that “they let their guard down”.
The likely British nationality of the killer and sheer savagery of his actions have shocked and embarrassed the UK government.
David Cameron, the prime minister, returned from holiday to chair emergency meetings with the foreign and home offices. He promised to “redouble” efforts to prevent young Britons travelling to Syria and northern Iraq to fight with militants. At least 500 are estimated by ministers to have done so already.
The Quilliam co-founder and chairman, Maajid Nawaz, is a former member of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir but now plans to stand for the UK parliament as a candidate for the centrist Liberal Democrats.
The foundation’s website quotes him from a newspaper column as saying the lure of conflict has not emerged “from a vacuum”.
“We in Britain have a deeply entrenched problem,” he wrote. “Islamist extremism is poisoning our community relations, hijacking our youth, and we are doing very little to address it.
“Throughout the 1990s our communities grew together, apart. This was applauded instead of being seen for what it was: fetishisation of minorities for those bent on romanticising ‘authentic’ Eastern culture.
“Foreign policy emerged as the popular cause for extremism, a half-truth at best, and Muslim ‘community leaders’ churned out televised obfuscations in order to avoid addressing the obvious: what responsibility do Iraq’s slaughtered Yazidis bear for any foreign policy grievance?
“British Muslims going abroad to fight is not new: it happened in Afghanistan. The only difference is that the ideology has been allowed to take root in the UK since then, and we are not doing anything about it.”
He predicted that more British militants would feature in Islamic State decapitation videos.
“And as our government hears no evil and sees no evil, we are woefully unprepared for when these jihadist fighters return home.”
* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters