Militants Behead American Journalist, Leveling New Threats At U.S.

The group known as the Islamic State has fired its first violent salvo against the U.S. The group declared that the beheading is a retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Today, American foreign policy intersected with personal tragedy. The parents of James Foley spoke about their son. He's the American journalist killed by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.

DIANE FOLEY: He always hoped that he would come home, that was his hope. And he sustained all the others who were with him, really with that hope.

SIEGEL: Foley's death is also a challenge to the United States and its way forward in Iraq and Syria. President Obama interrupted his vacation to denounce the killing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: No faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In a moment, we'll hear more about James Foley's life and work. But first, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston examines how his death may signal that the Islamic State has turned its sights on the U.S.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: When the Obama administration was debating earlier this summer whether to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State, one of the chief concerns was that it would give the group, also known as ISIS, an excuse to strike out at the U.S.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: I think it was always wishful thinking to imagine that the threat that ISIS presented was an entirely local one and that for some reason they had forgot about the United States.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: I think in many respects, they were looking for an excuse or for the opportunity. The airstrikes certainly gave them that. Their enmity towards the United States is undiminished, it's just that their focus was on someplace else.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That someplace else was in Syria and Iraq. The group has been methodically making its way across northern Iraq all summer, swallowing up town after town, driving Iraqis from their homes and capturing key infrastructure, like the Mosul dam. A militant attack on a religious minority in the takeover of the dam focused minds at the White House, and the president ordered airstrikes. James Foley was the Islamic militants' revenge. In the video, the hooded fighter from the group who executed Foley spoke to the camera with a British accent. He said Obama's decision to order airstrikes was the reason for killing Foley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISIS VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You have plotted against us and gone far out of your way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs. Today, your military Air Force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties amongst Muslims.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He went on to say that if the U.S. continued to target his group, then Americans would die.

PETER NEUMANN: People in ISIS are very sophisticated, very clever. They know that there's a debate in the U.S. and that there's a lot of skepticism among a lot of people in America about further involvement in the Middle East.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Peter Neumann is a professor of security studies at King's College London.

NEUMANN: And, of course, what this communicates is if you get further involved in our conflict, we will come after you. So in that sense, it's precisely - it's very strategic. It is terror for a political effect, really.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The U.S. has confirmed that it is James Foley in the video, and the search is on to try to identify the killer with the British accent. Neumann says that won't be too hard to do.

NEUMANN: Security services will have narrowed it down already to maybe three or four people, based on the likely location of this and based on the height of the person, on his accent, which clearly is a London accent. And based also on the social media where lots of the foreign fighters have profiles with pictures of themselves.

TEMPLE-RASTON: President Obama, for his part, predicted that the Islamic State would not prevail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy. And the world is shaped by people like Jim Foley and the overwhelming majority of humanity who were appalled by those who killed him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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