What We Know So Far About ‘Jihadi John,’ James Foley’s ISIS Executioner

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A week before the barbaric propaganda video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley surfaced, his captors sent Foley’s family an email. “Today our swords are unsheathed towards you, GOVERNMENT AND CITIZENS ALIKE! AND WE WILL NOT STOP UNTILL WE QUENCH OUR THIRST FOR YOUR BLOOD,” said the message, the first contact from the group in more than a year since they demanded a ransom of $132 million. Foley, the email concluded, “will be executed as a DIRECT result of your transgressions towards us!”

In the horrific clip that followed, Foley’s killer, speaking in a British accent, seems to relish in his role as murderous villain. Instantly, he became “quite possibly the world’s most famous terrorist,” and also one of the most wanted. In the typically glib parlance of the British press, he’s been nicknamed “Jihadi John.”

A militant fighter for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the man wielding the knife is reportedly “the ringleader of three British jihadists thought to be the main guards of foreign nationals in Raqqa,” a Syrian stronghold of the group, according to the Guardian. He “was said to be the main rebel negotiator during talks earlier this year to release 11 Islamic State hostages – who were eventually handed to Turkish officials after ransom demands were met.”

Because of their accents, the ISIS trio was referred to as “John, Paul and Ringo after the Beatles,” by their prisoners, the BBC reports.

Foley. Photo: Steven Senne

One former hostage, who was held for a year by the group in Raqqa, “told the Guardian the British executioner is intelligent, educated and a devout believer in radical Islamic teachings.” According to a linguistics expert, John “probably has a foreign language background but it sounds like multicultural London English, which is people from all kinds of backgrounds who mix in the East End, a new kind of cockney.”

The existence of British nationals fighting as Islamic militants is more common than you’d think. “It is likely that there are now more British Muslims fighting for the Islamic State than for Britain's military,” USA Today reports. “This is something we have been tracking and dealing with for many, many months and I don’t think this video changes anything,” said U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. “It just heightens awareness of a situation which is very grave.”

For Foley, it was particularly bad, The Wall Street Journal reports, citing a French journalist who was once held alongside the American:

In captivity, Mr. Foley was given tougher treatment than other hostages because insurgents had mined his laptop computer and discovered he had a brother who worked for the U.S. Air Force, Mr. François said.

“One of the last times I saw him before leaving, the group — which has macabre taste — had forced him to pose as if he was being crucified against a wall,” Mr. François said.

“As for the scum of your society who are held prisoner by us, THEY DARED TO ENTER THE LION’S DEN AND WHERE EATEN!” ISIS declared in its final dispatch to the reporter’s family. “You do not spare our weak, elderly, women or children so we will NOT spare yours!” Following President Obama’s promise to be “vigilant” and “relentless” in pursuit of Foley’s killers, the U.S. is considering expanding its attacks from Iraq into Syria.

Foley’s parents appeared this morning on the Today show. “I actually was excited to see an email despite the conclusion that they would execute Jim,” said his father. “We underestimated that point. I did not realize how brutal they were, and I actually hoped we could engage in negotiations with them if they were willing to send any sort of communication because we had none prior.” 

The group is thought to be holding at least three more Americans.