Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) have released a video claiming to show the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff and threatening a British hostage with a similar fate if the US continues air strikes against its forces.
At the end of the new clip, an Isis fighter parades a third hostage, identified as a British man, and threatens to behead him unless Western governments “back off” from the “evil alliance of America against the Islamic State”.
The warning that a UK hostage could be the next to be murdered – and suggestions that Mr Sotloff’s killer could also be British – will increase pressure on David Cameron to order the RAF to join US forces in attacking Isis militants in Iraq and even Syria.
He is poised to chair a Cobra meeting to discuss Britain's response to the threat.
The Prime Minister, who has not ruled out military strikes but until now has restricted operations to humanitarian missions for ethnic and religious minorities being targeted by the militants in Iraq, called the latest killing and its recording “an absolutely disgusting and despicable act”.
In pictures: Steven Sotloff
In pictures: Steven Sotloff
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Steven Sotloff inside Al-Fateh Mosque in Manama, Bahrain, in 2010
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Journalist Steven Sotloff, left, pictured in Libya in 2011
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Steven Sotloff pictured in 2010 near Lulu Roundabout in Manama, which later became the iconic center for the 2011 pro-reform protests in Bahrain
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Journalist Steven Sotloff pictured in Egypt
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Media gather outside Steven Sotloff's family home in Pinecrest, Florida
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Shirley Sotloff during a recent appeal to the captors of her son
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Pinecrest police officers are positioned at the home of Arthur B. Sotloff and Shirley Sotloff, the parents of American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff, in Pinecrest, Florida
Mr Cameron said: “If verified, this is a despicable and barbaric murder. My thoughts and prayers are with Mr Sotloff’s family and friends tonight as they deal with this appalling and tragic situation.
“As I have said consistently over the last few weeks, Isil terrorists speak for no religion. They threaten Syrians, Iraqis, Americans and British people alike and make no distinction between Muslims, Christians or any other faith.
“We have already been working hard to keep British people safe and we will continue to do all we can to protect our country and our people from these barbaric terrorists. Tomorrow morning I will chair a COBR meeting to review these latest developments.”
Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said: “The killing by Isis of another hostage and the threat of more violence demonstrates again their murderous barbarism.“
He added: “Their cold-blooded brutality against the innocent offends the values of people throughout the world, wherever they live.
“This shows, as we have recently have said, that they are a threat which cannot be ignored. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims.”
Mr Sotloff, 31, who was born in Florida, was kidnapped in Syria last year. He had been held with other hostages including fellow US journalist James Foley, who was killed on camera last month.
The new video, which appeared online today, seems to show Mr Sotloff kneeling in an orange jumpsuit and reading a prepared text, in a desert location similar to where Mr Foley was murdered. A masked man claiming to be the same Isis fighter who appeared in the Foley video stands beside Mr Sotloff, brandishing a knife and addressing the US President directly, saying, in a distinct English accent, “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.”
He goes on: “Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
In the earlier video, which depicted the murder of Mr Foley, Isis had paraded Mr Sotloff and threatened to kill him unless President Obama called off air strikes against the group’s fighters in Iraq. Instead, days later, Mr Obama ordered those air strikes to be stepped up. The new video, entitled “A second message to America”, appears to have been filmed at a later date than the original, as Mr Sotloff’s hair and stubble have grown longer.
The video’s existence was first reported by the SITE Intelligence Group, which was founded after the 9/11 attacks to monitor and translate extremist communications.
Although the US could not immediately confirm the clip’s authenticity, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “Our thoughts and prayers, first and foremost, are with Mr Sotloff and Mr Sotloff’s family and those who worked with him.”
At least two more Americans are believed to be being held by Isis. More than 70 journalists have been killed and 80 kidnapped in Syria since the beginning of the country’s civil war in 2011. Mr Sotloff was a freelancer who had contributed to magazines including Time, The Christian Science Monitor and Foreign Policy, reporting from conflict zones across the Middle East and North Africa before he was abducted near Aleppo in northern Syria in August 2013.
A spokesman for Mr Sotloff’s family, Barak Barfi, said it “knows of this horrific tragedy and is grieving privately”.
Until recently the family had deliberately resisted publicising his capture for fear that it might put him in danger. His kidnap only became public knowledge following his appearance in the Foley video on 19 August. Last week, Mr Sotloff’s mother issued a video plea to the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, urging him to show clemency to her son, whom she described as “an innocent journalist”, who “has no control over the actions of the US government”. In the video, Shirley Sotloff addressed Baghdadi as “the caliph of the Islamic State”, a title that he recently awarded himself. Mrs Sotloff urged him to show mercy and to follow the example of the Prophet Mohamed. “As a mother,” she said, “I ask your justice to be merciful and not punish my son for matters he has no control over.”
She said her son “travelled to the Middle East to cover the suffering of Muslims at the hands of tyrants. Steven is a loyal and generous son, brother and grandson. He is an honourable man and has always tried to help the weak.”
Mr Sotloff grew up in Miami and studied journalism at the University of Central Florida, graduating in 2004. One of his former college room-mates, Emerson Lotzia, recently told student newspaper Central Florida Future that Mr Sotloff had known the risks of reporting from Syria.
“A million people could have told him what he was doing was foolish, it seemed like it to us outsiders looking in, but to him it was what he loved to do and you weren’t going to stop him,” Mr Lotzia said. “Steve said it was scary over there. It was dangerous. It wasn’t safe to be over there. He knew it. He kept going back.”
New video same message
The “second message to America” is almost identical to the first. The video uses slick production techniques, opening with a graded picture of Barack Obama speaking from inside the White House. It cuts to what appears an almost exact replica of James Foley’s final moments. The location appears slightly different but remains consciously unidentifiable, perhaps Syria or Iraq.
Steven Sotloff, wearing a similar orange jump suit, is on his knees with a black-clad masked militant above. “I am Steven Joel Sotloff,” he begins, before reciting statements against the West’s intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Sotloff’s killer, who seems to be the man who killed Mr Foley, speaks with an English accent. After warning of future atrocities, the executioner pulls Mr Sotloff backward and a knife is drawn across his throat. The video pans across his body. It shows his bloody head positioned carefully on his corpse.
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