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Image from video released by Islamic State militants that appears to show the beheading of James Foley, a U.S. photojournalist who was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012. (Islamic State video)
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LONDON — The apparent beheading of American photojournalist James Foley by an Islamic State militant may have been undertaken by a British national, the United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Wednesday.
In an interview with the BBC, Hammond acknowledged that the militant shown in the unverified video with Foley — who was seized in Syria in 2012 — spoke with a British accent. It's possible that the perpetrator of the shocking killing, if confirmed, could be British, he said. He added that the video appeared to be genuine, though its authenticity has still not been verified.
"We're absolutely aware that there are significant numbers of British nationals involved in terrible crimes, probably in the commission of atrocities, making jihad with IS and other extremists organizations," Hammond told the BBC.
"This is something we have been tracking and dealing with for many many months and I don't think this video changes anything," he said. "It just heightens awareness of a situation which is very grave."
In the video, a man with a shaved head is seen kneeling beside a masked militant. The man, possibly Foley, 40, delivers what appears to be a scripted statement in which he asserts that U.S. airstrikes on IS militants in Iraq "signed my death warrant."
"IS is clearly sending a message to the U.S. government with this act, but it's also sending a message to the American people," said Raffaello Pantucci, a researcher at Royal United Services Institute in London, a security think tank. "The American public will look at this and think: 'What is (President) Obama doing (in Iraq).'"
Pantucci said that British government estimates suggest there may be as many as 500-880 British nationals involved in jihad activities for IS. "But we don't really know what that means. We don't know if that is nationals that have gone out there, stayed out there, died there, or have lived there all along," he said.
In 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was abducted in Pakistan by British national Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. Pearl was later killed in Pakistan although the specific circumstances of his death remain unclear.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said in a statement Wednesday that, "If true, the brutal murder of James Foley is shocking and depraved." Downing Street said Cameron was cutting short his vacation and returning to the capital to discuss the situation in Iraq and Syria and the threats posed by IS.
"The U.K. has never really been able to tackle the problem of radicalization," Pantucci said. "There's been a trend of individuals who have been drawn to these (Mideast) conflicts from here. The thing about Syria and Iraq is that it is such an accessible narrative. These people can go look online and just decide to participate. With it's proximity to Europe it's just so easy to do."
Christopher Davidson, a Mideast expert at Durham University, said there's been a lack of attention to the flow of Westerners to the region. "As long as they have been supposedly fighting the (Syrian President Bashar) Assad regime, authorities have turned a blind eye to it. Now that they are going to Iraq, we are starting to experience the blow back," he said.
Davidson also questioned the authenticity of the video. He noted the lack of spoken Arabic in the video, a blustery desert setting that appears to be limited, excessive pixelation in certain parts and the lack of a final, gruesome beheading scene.