The group known as ISIS has murdered American journalist James Foley, beheading him as if he were a captive taken in medieval combat. It posted a YouTube video designed for a 21st-century audience and threatened to kill another journalist hostage, Steven Joel Sotloff, if the United States continues its airstrikes against ISIS positions in Iraq.
The murderers, who now call themselves “knights” serving the “caliph” of the self-declared Islamic State that straddles northern Syria and Iraq, had Foley make a statement before he died.
But first the video showed President Obama’s press conference this month explaining his reasons for intervening against the group he calls ISIL. Then Foley was shown on his knees, his body erect—even proud—clad in an orange tunic with no collar, and his head shaved. Beside him, brandishing a short knife, was his executioner clad in black, his face covered, his voice unmistakably British.
“I call on my friends, family, and loved ones to rise up against my real killers, the U.S. government,” said Foley. He called on his parents not to accept any “meager compensation” for his death. The U.S. bombing campaign against ISIS was “the last nail in my coffin” he told the camera. He called on his brother John, a member of the U.S. Air Force, to “think about what you are doing, think about the lives you destroy. … I died that day, John, when your colleagues dropped that bomb on those people, they signed my death certificate. I wish I had more time. I wish I could have the hope of freedom and seeing my family once again. But that ship has sailed. I guess all in all I wish I wasn’t American.”
Then the British-accented executioner makes a little speech claiming any aggression against the Islamic State is an aggression against Muslims everywhere—whom this sinister pseudo-ninja seems to think he represents. Then he begins to saw at Foley’s throat. The screen goes black for a second.
One can surmise that the IS video producers thought the actual act of decapitation with a six-inch blade would be too gruesome for the kind of audience they want to reach—the video-game generation of wannabe jihadis around the world. Those kids might be too squeamish to watch the many extant ISIS videos of Christians and Shia being decapitated, photographs of which have been published even on sites like Catholic.org as ISIS wages its campaign to incite a global religious war and its victims and enemies fall into its trap.
Then, in the Foley video, which was quickly taken down from YouTube but doubtless has been spread around, we see a shot of Foley’s body with its severed head resting on it. And then Sotloff is presented to the camera and Obama is challenged to save him by halting the bombing.
“We have seen a video that purports to be the murder of U.S. citizen James Foley by ISIL,” said a statement from the National Security Council. “The intelligence community is working as quickly as possible to determine its authenticity. 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. We will provide more information when it is available.”
Although there is little question about his final moments, the matter of how Foley came into the hands of ISIS is more than a little mysterious. Foley was a risk taker who reported from the front lines, fully aware of the dangers that might entail. He was taken prisoner in Libya in 2011 before being released.
In Syria, he was picked up by gunmen from what the Federal Bureau of Investigation called an “organized gang” shortly after he left an Internet café on November 22, 2012. In May 2013, GlobalPost President Philip Balboni said that “with a very high degree of confidence, we now believe that Jim was most likely abducted by a pro-regime militia group”—that is, one loyal to President Bashar Assad—and that he was being held near Damascus by the Syrian Air Force intelligence service. “Based on what we have learned,” said Balboni, “it is likely Jim is being held with one or more Western journalists, including most likely at least one other American.”
Several groups fighting against Assad have claimed that there is—or was—a tacit collaboration, at least, between his intelligence services and ISIS, since it served the savage Assad regime well to claim it was fighting a terrorist enemy even more brutal than its own forces.
GlobalPost is reporting that the beheading of Foley is “unconfirmed” and that the FBI is evaluating the video’s contents.
Decapitations are an old strategy for jihadists aiming to impress the West. The 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, now at Guantanamo Bay, has claimed that he personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. A decade ago Abu Musab al-Zarqawi built his international infamy in Iraq with videos of Western men and women having their heads severed. Zarqawi was killed in 2006 by U.S. forces, but the organization he founded continued to evolve into this one calling itself Islamic State, which is much more sophisticated in almost every respect, and much more successful at gaining territory.
All these groups claim to be, in the words of al Qaeda leader and ideologue Ayman Zawahiri, “knights under the Prophet’s banner.” The language in a communiqué issued by Islamic State when the United States started giving air support to Kurdish troops in Iraq this month is typical:
Obama is “the Black of Washington” up against the “Knights of the Khilafah [Caliphate]”; he is the “dog of the Romans”—the Crusader knights of old. The “soldiers of the Khilafah … have pledged to Allah Almighty that the lands of the Muslims will not be defiled by a crusader infidel or a secular Kurd until they pass over their dead bodies.” And, sadly, the bodies of the caliphate’s victims.