A gruesome video released on social media on Tuesday by the Islamic State movement purported to show the beheading of American photojournalist James Wright Foley, who had been missing since being abducted in Syria in November 2012. The group said the murder was in retribution for U.S. airstrikes on its forces in northern Iraq.
On Wednesday the National Security Council said in a statement that the U.S. intelligence community "reached the judgment that this video is authentic."
The Islamic State (IS) is an Al-Qaeda breakaway group that has established what it calls a caliphate across swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. U.S. President Barack Obama last week ordered airstrikes in support of Kurdish forces fighting the IS to prevent it from overrunning Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq. The movement's fighters has conducted mass executions of Iraqis of the Yazidi faith.
In a message on Facebook, Foley's mother, Diane Foley said, "We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people." She implored the kidnappers to spare the lives of remaining hostages, who she said "have no control over American government policy in Iraq, Syria or anywhere in the world."
Announcing on social media that they had killed Foley, the IS warned that it would also execute a second American journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, who went missing in Syria in August 2013.
In the video, the man who beheaded Foley holds Sotloff by the nape of his neck and says, in what appears to be a British accent, "The life of this American, Obama, depends on your next decision."
Foley’s family had set up a website, FindJamesFoley.org, and a Twitter account to spread the word about their missing son.
"We know that many of you are looking for confirmation or answers. Please be patient until we all have more," reads the latest post on the family’s Twitter account, posted on Tuesday. Their previous tweet said Foley had been missing for 635 days.
News of Foley’s death sent a wave of grief through social media outlets, with users who first saw the graphic news urging others not to share or watch the images.
Foley’s name adds to the long list of journalists killed, imprisoned or missing in Syria, with the crimes going unprosecuted, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The problem has become so severe that dozens of news organizations wrote an open letter last year calling on the Syrian armed groups that have been fighting the government since 2011, to stop the violence against reporters and help secure the release of those captured.
The rash of kidnappings has made "it even more difficult to for the world to know what is happening in Syria," the letter read.
One observer called the journalists who are captives of armed groups "human bargaining chips" because they are held indefinitely rather than for ransom or for prisoner exchanges.
The Syrian government has also been responsible for the mistreatment and murder of reporters, press freedom activists say.
A freelancer working for the GlobalPost, Foley had been an intrepid journalist in the Middle East for five years, traveling to conflict zones across the region for stories. In 2011 forces loyal to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi held him captive for six weeks, according to The New York Times.
In an interview with The Boston Globe, Foley, a New Hampshire native, said he would not want his ordeal in Libya to frame his identity as a journalist, the Times reported.
"You don’t want to be defined as that guy who got captured in 2011," he said in the interview. "I believe that front-line journalism is important."
With wire services