Islamist militants on Tuesday released a video purportedly showing the gruesome beheading of a U.S. journalist — the second such execution of an American in less than a month and one that has accelerated bipartisan calls for President Obama to declare war on the terrorist group known as the Islamic State.
The Obama administration has yet to authenticate the video, believed to show the killing of Steven Sotloff, a 31-year-old freelance journalist who worked for Time and Foreign Policy magazines before going missing in Syria about a year ago.
The chilling video, titled "A Second Message to America," is nearly identical to footage released last month showing the beheading of James Foley, a photojournalist who also was taken captive by Islamic State fighters in Syria.
Just as they did in the Foley video, the militants threaten future killings at the end, displaying another hostage they identified as David Haines, a Briton, and saying the U.S. and its allies will pay a price for targeting the terrorist organization in Iraq.
"I am back, Obama. I am back because of your arrogant foreign policy toward the Islamic State," a member of the organization says in a British accent just before taking a knife to the throat of the man purported to be Mr. Sotloff. "Our knife will continue to strike the neck of your people."
The apparent slaying — seemingly confirmed by the Sotloff family, which said in a statement it is "grieving privately" — comes just a few days after Mr. Obama acknowledged that he doesn't have a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State, which controls a nation-size swath of territory across Iraq and Syria, and which has killed scores of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. The organization also is known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
Over the weekend the U.S. continued its air campaign against the militant group in Iraq, helping Iraqi security forces retake the town of Amirli, which had been besieged by Islamist fighters.
But the White House has refused to engage in a broader war against the organization, most notably avoiding airstrikes against Islamic State strongholds in Syria and instead focusing on using air power to guard U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq and protect Iraqi civilians.
In fact, even with two American journalists beheaded on camera in a few weeks' time, the State Department's main spokeswoman Tuesday refused to even acknowledge that war is going on.
"I'm not going to put new labels on it," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said when specifically asked whether the U.S. and the Islamic State are "at war," as the Islamist group has itself repeatedly stated.
"I think I want to be very careful here, just that we have not confirmed through the proper processes, and I just need to restate that speaking on behalf of the U.S. government," she said. "I'm not going to, again, put new labels on it. I think it's clear that we are concerned about the threat of ISIL to Western interests, to interests in the region."
Bipartisan opposition to the president's strategy, or lack thereof, has been building for weeks. Tuesday's video, proponents of a stronger response argue, is just the latest example of why the U.S. must take a more aggressive posture, and must do so soon.
Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said Tuesday he'll offer legislation giving Mr. Obama legal authority to target the Islamic State in Syria.
"This will ensure there's no question that the president has the legal authority he needs to use airstrikes in Syria," he said in a statement. "Let there be no doubt, we must go after ISIS right away, because the U.S. is the only one that can put together a coalition to stop this group that's intent on barbaric cruelty."
Leading Republicans echoed that call, saying the death of a second American and the video's promise that future killings are inevitable provide even greater justification for U.S. intervention.
Specifically, many lawmakers are calling on the administration to provide greater military assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State in Iraq, in addition to pleas that the White House authorize bombings in Syria.
"Sadly, ISIS is bringing this barbarity across the region — beheading and crucifying those who don't share their dark ideology," said Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The threat from this group seems to grow by the day. Working with key allies, the United States needs to be acting urgently to arm the Kurds on the ground who are fighting them and targeting ISIS from the air with drone strikes."
Administration officials shot back at critics and said the president is still weighing whether military action is Syria is the best course of action.
"There are certainly people who will take advantage of the opportunity to do some Monday-morning quarterbacking here. That's well within their rights," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. "As it relates to ISIL, the president has laid out a comprehensive strategy, and how the military action in Syria fits into that strategy is something that the president and his team are still working on."
He also offered condolences to the Sotloff family without confirming that the video is authentic.
"It is something that will be analyzed very carefully by the U.S. government and our intelligence officials to determine its authenticity," Mr. Earnest said.
The Sotloff family also has viewed the video, which apparently was released online by an Islamic State affiliate group before it was meant to be.
"The family knows of this horrific tragedy and is grieving privately. There will be no public comments from the family during this difficult time," Sotloff family spokesman Barak Barfi said in a statement.
In the video, the man believed to be Sotloff is shown on his knees in an orange jumpsuit. He blames his impending death on U.S. policy, though it's highly likely he was coerced into doing so.
"Obama, your foreign policy of intervention in Iraq was supposed to be for the preservation of American lives so why is it that I'm having to pay the price of the interference with my life. Am I not an American citizen?" the man said. "Where is the American people's interest in reigniting this war?"
The man's coerced words then taunt the U.S. president with his campaign promises.
"I remember a time when you could not win an election without promising to bring our troops back home from Iraq, from Afghanistan and close down Guantanamo," he says. "Here you are, Obama, nearing the end of your term and having achieved none of the above [instead] marching us, the American people, into a blazing fire."
The video then fades to black before an Islamic State fighter appears on screen. After he speaks, he takes a knife to the throat of the victim, and the video again fades to black as the dying man slumps to the ground.
The footage returns once more to show a headless torso and the recognizable face from earlier in the video. The fighter then produces the British man identified as Mr. Haines, who also is clad in an orange jumpsuit.
It wasn't immediately clear who Mr. Haines is, but British Prime Minister David Cameron — who on Monday proposed new travel and passport restrictions designed to limit Islamic State fighters' ability to return to Britain — said he's aware that one of his countrymen is being held hostage by the terrorist group, the BBC reported.
Mr. Cameron also called Tuesday's beheading an "absolutely disgusting, despicable act."
Analysts say the Islamic State knows that such brutal acts, and releasing video of those acts, spark outrage and can prompt a more vigorous international response. But the organization relies on the method for a variety of purposes, according to William McCants, director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution.
"ISIS is keenly aware that its beheadings are bad for public relations. Al Qaeda's senior leaders have cautioned them against the stunt for years. But ISIS doesn't care," he said.
Mr. McCants said the Islamic State even hopes to anger the American public, and thereby influence U.S. foreign policy into choices it favors.
"The insurgent group is using the beheadings to communicate to the United States and its allies that it can respond to their attacks. It also wants to rile the American public so [that] it [then] puts pressure on the Obama administration to commit ground troops or leave the theater. Either would be a win in the eyes of ISIS."
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