In Brief

Islamic State: RAF jets carry out first air strikes in Iraq

Attacks will prompt 'relief' for government after fanfare of air strikes vote, but 'anxiety' for hostages

World leaders meet after third Islamic State beheading video

15 September

Foreign ministers from around the world are due to meet in Paris today to plan their next move against Islamic State militants.

The two-day summit follows the beheading of British aid worker David Haines at the hands of the militants. Islamic State released video footage of his death and threatened to kill a second Briton, Alan Henning, a 47-year-old aid volunteer from Salford.

David Cameron has vowed to "hunt down" the killers and said that the "menace" of Islamic State has to be destroyed. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond will meet US Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers in Paris to discuss plans to tackle the extremists, who have taken control of large parts of northern Iraq and Syria.

According to the BBC, the summit is expected to look at US plans to offer more military support to Iraq, as well as plans to prevent foreign fighters and funding from reaching the extremists.

The US has said that 40 countries have signed up to a coalition to help fight the militant group and several Arab countries have also offered to take part in airstrikes.

In the video released on Saturday night, Haines, a father of two from Holderness in East Yorkshire, was killed by a masked jihadist with a British accent. Haines, the third western hostage known to have been beheaded by IS in the past month, was kidnapped in Syria in March last year.

Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent, says the extremists are clearly "angry and frustrated" that their advance across Iraq has been stopped in its tracks.

"Incapable to date of shooting down America's F/A18 jets, this is the group's way of hitting back at a distant enemy through the medium of public information," says Gardner.

He says it is now looks "inevitable" that the UK will step up its role in the fight against IS.

Britain has not ruled out airstrikes but is yet to outline its plans. Several MPs have told The Times they believe any announcement is being delayed until after the Scottish independence referendum, with party leaders "afraid of swaying anti-interventionist Scottish voters".

Islamic State threatens to  behead British aid worker

03 September

David Cameron is holding an emergency meeting today to discuss Islamic State's threat to kill a British aid worker unless attacks on its militants are stopped.

The jihadists yesterday released a second video, in which they appear to behead another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, and then threaten the life of a British hostage. This morning US authorities confirmed that the video was genuine.

It follows closely the pattern of the James Foley video released two weeks ago, says The Times. A masked jihadist, believed to be the same British man who killed Foley, points a knife at the camera and addresses US President Barack Obama directly. "I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State," he says.

He claims the US airstrikes in Amerli and the Mosul Dam triggered Sotloff's death. "So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people," he warns.

Sotloff is also forced to address the camera, just like Foley. The moment of Sotloff's death is not filmed but the masked jihadist later places what appears to be Sotloff's detached head upon his body.

The jihadist then issues a direct threat against a British hostage, who can be seen on the video. He warns governments to back off "this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State".

The hostage is a British aid worker, who has not been named in the British press at the request of his family but has been identified by the international press. Just like Foley and Sotloff, he is presented to the camera with his head shaven and wearing an orange jump-suit.

Cameron, who has not ruled out British involvement in airstrikes in Iraq, has condemned Sotloff's killing as an "absolutely disgusting and despicable act". In a statement last night, he said: "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."

Islamic State: what we know about James Foley's killer

21 Aug

The investigation is underway to identify the Islamic State militant who killed American journalist James Foley. The killer was filmed speaking in a British accent and taking a knife to the throat of 40-year-old Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria two years ago. The video, which was broadcast around the world on Tuesday night, has sparked a worldwide manhunt involving the FBI, MI5 and Scotland Yard.

How are the authorities trying to identify him?

The video itself offers some clues, such as the killer's build and skin colour. Using Foley's measurements as a guide, security services will be able to work out the killer's height. Experts will also be looking at his desert boots and distinctive commando knife to find out where they might have been bought, says the Daily Telegraph. MI5 and the police Counter-Terrorism Unit will be looking at their own databases for clues, as well as social media and online forums. The Metro says that Muslim community leaders in Britain have also vowed to work with police and security services to track down the killer and expose other British extremists.

Will his accent give him away?

The video was shot using high-quality equipment, which should help investigators glean clues from the killer's voice. Forensic phonetics experts will be listening to the accent and tone of his voice, as well as the pattern and duration of syllables. Voice-recognition software can also help identify whether he has appeared in videos before. Professor Paul Kerswill, a linguistics expert at the University of York, told The Guardian that it sounded like the killer spoke in "multicultural London English" most commonly found in London's East End. However, other linguistics experts have warned that it might be difficult to pinpoint exactly where he is from as young people in urban areas tend to pick up a range of influences in their accents.

What do we know about him so far?

Counter-terrorism experts believe the killer might be one of around 500 British-born jihadists who left the UK to fight in Syria and Iraq – many of whom are known to the security services. One former foreign hostage believes the killer in the video is the ringleader of three British jihadists who guard foreign hostages in Raqqa, a stronghold of Islamic State rebels in Syria. A source close to the former hostage told The Guardian that the militant referred to himself as "John" and fellow hostages referred to the three jihadists as "The Beatles" because of their nationality. He was said to be the main negotiator during talks earlier this year to release 11 Islamic State hostages. They were eventually handed to Turkish officials after ransom demands were met. The source said the British jihadist was "intelligent, educated and a devout believer in radical Islamic teachings". It also emerged today that US special forces failed in an attempt to free Foley and other western hostages in Syria just weeks before his murder.

 

Why choose a British executioner?

Experts note that British fighters have been carrying out executions and torture for months, but this appears to be the first carried out against a Westerner on video. Dr James Alvarez, a British-American hostage negotiator, told the Telegraph that the Islamic State would have deliberately chosen a Briton to cause maximum shock in the West. "It serves their purpose to have people hate them," he said. "And there is nothing that will put more hatred into people's hearts than watching a British person doing something as horrifying as that."

 

Will authorities succeed in identifying him?

Professor Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, tells The Independent he would be "very surprised" if the security services had not already narrowed down his identity to "two or three people".  Analysts believe it is only a matter of time before he is identified, says BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner. "Bringing him to justice though, will be an altogether more difficult proposition." 

'British jihadist' beheads kidnapped American journalist on video

20 August

Islamic State militants have released a video in which a jihadist with a British accent appears to behead an American journalist in revenge for US airstrikes in Iraq.

Entitled A Message to America, the video shows a British jihadist, covered from head to toe in black clothing, standing with a knife beside James Foley, a journalist kidnapped in Syria almost two years ago.

Speaking in a strong London accent, the jihadist accuses Barack Obama of denying Muslims the right to "live in safety under the Islamic caliphate" and warns the US president that this will "result in the bloodshed of your people" before appearing to cut Foley's throat with a knife.

The authenticity of the video, posted on YouTube and subsequently taken down again, has not yet been verified. In the same video, the militants claim to be holding another US journalist, Steven Sotloff, and say that his life depends on Obama's next move.

Foley, 40, was a freelance journalist working for America's GlobalPost and French news agency AFP when he disappeared in Syria on 22 November 2012. He was held alongside several other Americans, whose families asked for a news blackout, reports the New York Times.

In a statement, Foley's mother Diane urged the kidnappers to "spare the lives of the remaining hostages", describing them and her son as "innocents" who have no control over American government policy. "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 said.

British officials said that they were urgently seeking further information about the identity of the jihadist.

The US has carried out more than 65 airstrikes since 8 August in what it says was a bid to protect its own personnel, as well as vulnerable minorities persecuted by the militants.

A spokeswoman for the US National Security Council said of the video: "If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends."

The video is believed to have been posted by Mohammed al-Masri via al-Furqan Media, an outlet that has previously posted Islamic State propaganda.

Islamic State driven from Iraqi dam in 'major step forward'

19 Aug

Iraq's largest dam has been retaken from Islamic State fighters in what Barack Obama is calling a "major step forward" for the country.

The Mosul dam, located on the River Tigris, controls the water and power supply to a large surrounding area in northern Iraq and was captured by militants on 7 August.

US fighter jets, bombers and drones yesterday helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces to drive the extremist fighters away from the dam.

Troops on the ground had to dismantle a complicated network of land mines and booby traps left by the retreating fighters, with one Kurdish fighter telling the Washington Post that the militants were the "smartest terrorists" he had ever seen.

The retaking of the dam marks the first major victory for the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, who have been battling the Islamic militants since US airstrikes began earlier this month.

But Paul Wood, a BBC correspondent at the scene, notes that the fight for the city of Mosul itself will be "much, much harder". He adds that the Mosul dam is "just one of many battlefronts against Islamic State throughout Iraq".

Initially US forces returned to Iraq with the goal of preventing a Yazidi genocide and protecting US personnel. Obama justified the Mosul airstrikes, saying that a breach of the dam "could have proven catastrophic" with flooding reaching Baghdad where hundreds of US personnel are stationed.

The President insisted the US was not "reintroducing thousands of troops to engage in combat". He added: "We're not the Iraqi military, we're not even the Iraqi air force."

But The Guardian says that "functionally that is exactly what the US military has been over the past eleven days".

The US has carried out 68 airstrikes since 8 August, with more than 35 taking place over the past three days around the Mosul dam.

Obama says the US will continue to carry out the "limited missions" he has authorised to protect his personnel and facilities and to provide humanitarian support.    

Britain steps up role in Iraq to stem Islamic State 'onslaught'

18 Aug

Britain is stepping up its military involvement in the fight against the Islamic State militants in Iraq.

RAF Tornados and surveillance aircraft have been flying over northern Iraq to track the extremist fighters, while Britain has been flying ammunition and arms supplied by other countries to Kurdish forces.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon confirmed that Britain's mission in Iraq has changed from ending the humanitarian crisis to joining the "fight against terrorism" and has said that the mission could last "months". He also revealed that British troops had been back on the ground in Iraq to "prepare the way" for a possible evacuation of persecuted Iraqis, but had since been flown out again.

David Cameron insists "we cannot turn a blind eye" to the Islamic State uprising. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he warns: "If we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain."

He says it is neither a "War on Terror" nor a war of religion, but a "battle against a poisonous ideology that is condemned by all faiths".

The Times agrees that a humanitarian response is not enough. The Islamic State "is a threat to the peoples of the region, to the stability of the Middle East and to Britain directly", it says. "Its demands cannot be negotiated away. It has to be defeated by tough security policies, domestically and by military aid to Britain's allies who are targeted by Islamist extremism."

However, The Independent says "the cynical laughter in Damascus can practically be heard above the exploding of barrel bombs". It seems like only yesterday that Parliament was asked to endorse air strikes against Bashir al-Assad's regime in Syria, says the newspaper. Now it is Assad's "most potent enemy" that is the target.

In The Guardian, former cabinet minister Chris Huhne notes that Cameron suffered a "humiliating defeat" last time parliament was called to vote on intervention in Syria. But he says the situation in the Middle East "requires action". Britain has so far done "little except tip food parcels out of military transport", with the last week notable for dither and delay, he says. "Cameron was thrown from his horse over Syria, but he now has to get back on and ride."

Mission to save Iraqis trapped on Mount Sinjar 'unlikely'

14 Aug

An international mission to evacuate Iraqis trapped on Mount Sinjar by violent Islamic State extremists is unlikely to go ahead.

A team of around 20 US special forces personnel and aid workers flew to the mountain yesterday to assess the situation and found fewer people than expected. Those left behind were also in a better condition than previously feared, said the Pentagon.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis, including members of the Yazidi community, were believed to have been trapped on the mountain, surrounded by Islamist militants who threatened to kill them if they came down. Many, including children, had suffered starvation, thirst and exhaustion after leaving their homes and being forced to stay on the mountain  in temperatures of up to 48C.

But the US claims the siege is now over. Thousands of people have escaped from the mountain each night over the past few days, with the help of four US air strikes on Islamic State targets and efforts from Kurdish forces, it said.

The remaining refugees continue to have access to the humanitarian air drops carried out by the West.

David Cameron returned to Downing Street from his holiday in Portugal yesterday to chair a Cobra emergency meeting on the Iraq crisis. British special forces had been expected to assist in any rescue operation, but are now unlikely to be needed.

The latest assessment is likely to "bring some relief" to Barack Obama, says The Times, although an evacuation at a later point has not been discounted.

Obama had not ruled out putting troops on the ground, although one White House official said that any ground forces would not take on combat roles.

Any British participation is unlikely to involve ground troops, while France has said it will arm Iraqi Kurds, who are already getting US military aid to fight the militants.

The UN, which estimates that 1.2 million Iraqis have been internally displaced, yesterday declared the humanitarian crisis a "level three emergency", its highest level.

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