WASHINGTON — An Islamic militant group released a video on Tuesday showing the beheading of a second U.S. hostage, blaming the killing on President Barack Obama and raising the pressure on him to order military strikes on the group in its sanctuary in Syria.
The hostage, Steven J. Sotloff, is shown in the video kneeling like the previous victim, James Foley, while his masked killer stands above, wielding a knife. Sotloff addresses the camera and describes himself as “paying the price” for Obama’s decision to strike the group, the Islamic State, in northern Iraq.
The apparent murder of Sotloff, 31, came despite televised pleas from his mother to the leader of Islamic State seeking mercy for her son, a freelance journalist who was captured in northern Syria a year ago. Although the administration said it had not yet authenticated the video, members of Sotloff’s family issued a statement saying they believed he had been killed.
The videotaped beheadings and threats by Islamic State — which have followed its lightning conquest of broad swaths of Syria and Iraq — have transformed the jihadist group into one of the most urgent threats facing a president who is wrestling with crises from Ukraine to Gaza.
The killing raises difficult questions for Obama, who last Friday said he had not yet formulated a strategy for using military force against the militants in Syria. As news of Sotloff’s death broke on Tuesday afternoon, just before Obama left for a weeklong trip to Europe and a NATO summit meeting, the White House struggled to deal with the implications for his policy.
“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,” a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, said of the video.
The exact timing of Sotloff’s killing was not clear. Many U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials had assumed that he died earlier — likely killed, they said, at the same time Foley was murdered two weeks ago.
Yet the video, released by the SITE Intelligence Group, a research firm that tracks jihadist online postings, showed Sotloff with a beard and thin hair on his head. In the video of Foley’s death, Sotloff appeared almost completely bald and had only stubble on his face.
This indicates that the videos were probably made at different times, as does an apparent reference in the video by the masked man to U.S. airstrikes near the Iraqi town of Amerli, which the military carried out last weekend.
Obama did not address the killing before leaving for Estonia, where he plans to reassure Baltic NATO allies in the face of Russia’s incursions in Ukraine. Administration officials said he did not want to speak before intelligence agencies had authenticated the video.
White House officials said Obama remained cautious about military strikes in Syria, and that he was focused for now on developing a strategy and assembling a broad coalition of countries to deal with Islamic State, one of several combatants in Syria’s 3-year-old civil war.
But the harrowing images of Americans with knives to their throats has given the threat from Islamic State an emotional resonance and stoked calls on Capitol Hill and elsewhere for Obama to act more boldly. Some current and former counterterrorism officials said that although Obama would be under extraordinary pressure to retaliate, there were arguments against striking back.
“That pressure is often the enemy of good policy,” said Daniel J. Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator and now a scholar at Dartmouth College. “There will be a clamor for the president to take military action, which may not be effective. If he conducts airstrikes and does not get the desired effect, there’ll be pressure for more airstrikes, and then to put boots on the ground.”
But Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would introduce a bill giving Obama authority to order airstrikes in Syria. Republicans and even some Democrats have criticized the president’s admission last Friday that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for combating the militants there.
At the same time, some experts warned that it would be difficult to mount a rescue mission like one that Army Delta Force commandos tried in July, when they raided an oil refinery near the Syrian city of Raqqa after receiving intelligence that U.S. hostages, and possibly others, were being held there. By the time the commandos arrived, the hostages were gone.
“The U.S. has been very successful on many occasions, but rescues — especially in disputed areas like Syria — are not remotely a sure thing,,’’ said Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
As horrifying as this latest killing was, some former officials predicted that it would have little effect on Obama’s deliberations.
“Steve Sotloff’s murder was anticipated,” said Steven Simon, a former director on the National Security Council. “The unresolved issues relate to escalation within Syria.’’
The farther west the U.S. strikes Islamic State, he said, the more it will be seen intervening on behalf of President Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war.
The latest video was staged much like the one with Foley. Sotloff, wearing an orange jumpsuit, said: “Your foreign policy of intervention in Iraq was supposed to be about the preservation of American lives and interests. So why is it that I’m having to pay the price of your interference with my life?’’
A masked fighter speaking in British-accented English — similar to the disguised person in the Foley video — then declared, “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.”
The video, titled “A Second Message to America,” ends with the masked figure saying: “Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
The SITE group also said Islamic State was threatening that a third captive, a British citizen it identified as David Cawthorne Haines, would be the next beheading victim. The group is currently holding two other Americans as well as three British hostages — most of them aid workers.
Sotloff, a Florida native who wrote for Time magazine and other publications, had reported on the convulsions of the Arab Spring for the last few years. His capture by Islamic State was largely kept a secret for months at the request of his family.
Last Thursday, Sotloff’s mother, Shirley, appealed to the leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Muslim world, to grant amnesty to her son. “I ask you to use your authority to spare his life,” she said in videotaped remarks seen around the world.
A person close to the Sotloff family expressed outrage at what he viewed as a pattern of deliberate leaks in Washington suggesting that Sotloff had been killed the same day as Foley — a strategy he said the family sees as an attempt to absolve the administration of inaction.
“It was incredibly frustrating for us, because it was as if basically they were saying, ‘Don’t hope for any positive outcome,’” said this person, who requested anonymity because he did not have the family’s permission to speak publicly.