LONDON — The prospect is so worrisome to the British government that Prime Minister David Cameron broke off a vacation to try to get to the bottom of it: Is the masked jihadi seen in a video apparently beheading an American journalist a British citizen?
If that suspicion is borne out, it will almost certainly deepen apprehensions in Europe over the several hundred young Muslim citizens who have reportedly joined the Sunni militant Islamic State group and may be prepared to commit what Cameron called “shocking and depraved” atrocities.
The video by the Islamic State group, which emerged late Tuesday, shows James Foley, an American journalist who was kidnapped in Syria two years ago, wearing an orange jumpsuit and kneeling in a desert setting, as a darkly clad, masked figure stands over him. The masked fighter, speaking in English, pulls out a knife and says that Foley is being killed in retaliation for recent U.S. airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State group. Several British journalists who have viewed the video said the killer appears to have a British accent.
“Our intelligence services will be looking very carefully on both sides of the Atlantic at this video to establish its authenticity, to try to identify the individual concerned, and then we will work together to try to locate him,” Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Sky News.
The video images shocked many people in Europe, adding to a sense that the advance of the militant group poses a challenge beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. Many European countries fear that their own citizens who have trained and fought alongside the Islamic State group may return to wage jihad on European soil.
France has called for a summit to work out an international response to the Islamic State group. “We can no longer keep to the traditional debate of intervention or nonintervention,” President François Hollande told the newspaper Le Monde.
“We have to come up with a global strategy to fight this group, which is structured, has significant financing, very sophisticated weapons and threatens countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” he was quoted as saying.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, has said the Islamic State group poses an “existential threat” to the Kurds, to Iraq and to the whole of the Middle East and the German government said it would explore which weapons and munitions it could contribute to the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq to help them fight the militants.
“We can imagine further providing further military support, including weapons,” Steinmeier told reporters in Berlin. “We are prepared to do this and will, of course, coordinate with our European partners.”
The decision is significant for Germany, which has been reluctant to contribute anything beyond humanitarian aid or support services to conflicts beyond its borders, a legacy of its bloody 20th century history and the decades of the country’s division during the Cold War.
Some British newspapers had criticized Cameron for vacationing with his family in Cornwall, in southwest England, while the crisis in Iraq crisis unfolded. He broke the vacation off Wednesday to join other officials in the capital in addressing the video’s implications.
It was not immediately clear whether British authorities were also concerned that British hostages held by the insurgents might be killed.
In London, Hammond, the foreign secretary, said he would not be surprised if the masked jihadi in the video turned out to be a British citizen.
“We are absolutely aware that there are significant numbers of British nationals involved in terrible crimes, probably in the commission of atrocities, making jihad with IS and other extremist organizations,” Hammond said, referring to the Islamic State group by a shortened version of its name.
“This is something we have been tracking and dealing with for many, many months,” he said. “I don’t think this video changes anything, it just heightens awareness of a situation which is very grave.”