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Will The Latest ISIS Beheading Drive Britain To Tougher Action?

The beheadings of American journalists galvanized U.S. public opinion, pushing Obama toward war. The same thing may happen to Cameron.

Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty

Hours after the family of a British aid worker held hostage in Syria appealed to his captors to make contact with them, jihadists posted a sickening video online of his beheading. He is the third Western hostage to be murdered by militants from the self-styled Islamic State.

Forty-four-year-old David Haines had been taken hostage in the village of Atmeh, in the Idlib province of northern Syria, in March 2013. He had been working with a French non-profit helping to deliver aid to refugees, but his humanitarian work didn’t protect him from the jihadists, who followed almost exactly the same script in their killing of the father-of-two as they did with the decapitations of American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff.

In the video he is shown kneeling in an orange jumpsuit on a hill with the same landscape behind him that appeared in the videos in the killings of the U.S. reporters. As with the two slain journalists he also recites a statement blaming his country for his murder.

Addressing British Prime Minister David Cameron he says: “My name is David Cawthorne Haines. I would like to declare that I hold you, David Cameron, entirely responsible for my execution.”

He adds: “You entered voluntarily into a coalition with the United States against the Islamic State, just as your predecessor, Tony Blair, did. Following a trend amongst our British Prime Ministers who can’t find the courage to say no to the Americans. Unfortunately, it is we, the British public, that will in the end pay the price for our Parliament's selfish decisions.”

Cameron condemned the murder as “the embodiment of evil,” adding the killing of an innocent aid worker was “callous and brutal.”

"Today, the whole country will want to express its deep sympathy for David Haines’ family," Cameron said in a statement. "They have endured the last 18 months of David’s captivity with extraordinary courage. And now David has been murdered in the most callous and brutal way imaginable by an organisation which is the embodiment of evil."

A government spokesman said the British Prime Minister would chair an emergency meeting later today of the so-called Cobra committee, a top security panel of ministers and military commanders.

Britain’s House of Commons is due to debate next week whether the country’s armed forces should join in US military strikes in Iraq against the so-called Islamic State (aka the “Caliphate,” ISIS and ISIL), but whatever happened in Iraq, Cameron is unlikely to ask for formal approval for military action in Syria against the militant extremist group. Opposition parties are reluctant to endorse air strikes in Syria, saying they have doubts about their legality without a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for them. That resistance, so far, has forced the British prime minister to limit what he will call for in the Commons.

It is conceivable, though far from certain, that the brutal killing of Haines will have the same sort of impact in Britain as the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff had in the United States. The British public has been reluctant to get involved again in a Middle Eastern war, just as the American public was. But the killings of the American journalists dramatically shifted opinion in the U.S. in favor of taking some sort of military action against the jihadists, who have captured a swath of land in Syria and Iraq.

The killings of Foley and Sotloff caused a dramatically hawkish change in US public opinion, prompting Americans overwhelmingly to view Islamic State militants as a serious threat. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll published last week, 71 percent of all Americans said they supported air strikes in Iraq — up from 54 percent three weeks ago and from 45 percent in June. And 65 per cent supported air strikes in Syria, which is twice the number that approved such actions to deal with the threat of chemical weapons there one year ago, when American rejection of renewed military involvement in the region was overwhelming.

Reacting to the beheading of Haines, President Obama said the US “strongly condemns the barbaric murder”. He added: “Our hearts go out to the family of Mr. Haines and to the people of the United Kingdom. The United States stands shoulder to shoulder tonight with our close friend and ally in grief and resolve.”

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Political pressure was mounting tonight from veteran Conservative politicians on Cameron to take much tougher action against IS. Former luminaries from the Thatcher era, including onetime foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind, are pressing the UK Prime Minister to strike the jihadists in Syria as well as Iraq.

But a leading human rights lawyer in Britain, Philippe Sands, has cautioned that Cameron does not even have “wafer-thin” legal justification for ordering UK warplanes to support US-led raids against the militants in Syria. Philippe Sands says there is no justification for such action on three grounds: the UN has not authorized strikes; they can’t be justified using an argument of self-defense; and there is little legal precedent for launching any attack on “humanitarian grounds”.

A former security minister, Pauline Neville-Jones, has warned that Cameron would have to pursue “careful development of policy” and make a clear public case for military intervention.

It was unclear Sunday if Cameron was ready to make that case. While he pledged to confront ISIS in his statement, he also left unsaid whether he would push for strikes such as those the United States has begun carrying out.

"Step by step, we must drive back, dismantle and ultimately destroy ISIL and what it stands for," he said. "We will do so in a calm, deliberate way — but with an iron determination. We will not do so on our own – but by working closely with our allies, not just the United States and in Europe, but also in the region."

He instead listed five steps the UK would take to combat ISIS: Working with the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, working within the U.N. to mobilze efforts against the group, supporting the U.S. in intelligence gathering and logistics, continue its humanitarian efforts in northern Iraq, and beef up the UK's counter-terrorism efforts at home.

Last year Cameron failed to persuade the British public and parliament to act against Bashar al-Assad when the Syrian leader used chemical weapons on rebels and civilians. He will want to avoid losing a vote, especially in a week that could see calls for his resignation mount, if Scotland votes in a referendum on Thursday to break away from the UK.

British politicians reacted with anger at the reports of today’s killing. Stella Creasy, a senior Labor MP, said she was “shocked and horrified” to learn of the reports of Haines’ execution. Dan Jarvis, another senior Labour MP, said he was “sickened.” Britain’s Foreign Office said, meanwhile, it was “working urgently to verify” the video.

A few hours before the video surfaced, the British aid worker’s family had put out an urgent plea to his captors, saying, “We have sent messages to you to which we have not received a reply. We are asking those holding David to make contact with us.”

Haines’s whereabouts were only revealed this month when he was shown in a video produced by jihadists of the murder of Steven Sotloff. A masked man, who has become known as “Jihadi John” and has a British accent, said Haines would be next, if the West did not halt military operations against IS.

In this video, as with the previous ones, the murderers are promising there will be another victim if their demands are not met, which they surely know will not happen. That man’s name is Alan Henning. He is another British aid worker.

Haines was familiar with dangerous parts of the world. He had worked for agencies in Libya and south Sudan before going to Syria. He was abducted along with an Italian colleague as they traveled in a car through the northern part of the country in March last year. British officials suspect a criminal gang was responsible for the seizure but that he was later sold to ISIS.

His family requested a media blackout, prompted to do so by his employers and the British government. He has two daughters, ages four and 17, and lived in Croatia with his second wife, Dragana.

On Friday, mosque leaders across Scotland — where Haines’s parents live – made a collective call for all hostages to be released.