WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation of the death of American journalist James Foley, Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday.
Foley was beheaded by the Islamist militant group Islamic State, an act shown in a video released on Tuesday in which the group called for the United States to end its air strikes in Iraq. President Barack Obama responded that the United States would be relentless in fighting the organization despite the killing.
A European security official said Foley’s executioner, a masked man in black who used a knife to behead Foley, spoke with an accent from London or near London. Some officials suggested it was possible the man was originally an immigrant to the United Kingdom.
A U.S. official said American investigators were urgently attempting to “identify and capture” the man in the video. The official did not say who would take the lead in trying to capture him once he is identified.
U.S. and European officials said efforts were underway to match the voiceprint of the man in the video with recordings of known individuals.
In addition to the FBI and Justice Department, British government agencies, including the counter-intelligence agency known as MI-5, were working on the case. MI-5 has devoted considerable effort to identify and trace Britons fighting with militants in Iraq and Syria.
British authorities have estimated that as many as 500 U.K. citizens have traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State or with rival Jamat al Nusrah militants. A European official said photos previously posted on militants’ social media feeds had pictured men identified as Britons displaying multiple severed heads.
British Muslim leaders urged people to contact police if they knew the identity of the man.
U.S. forces tried to rescue Foley and other American hostages during a secret mission into Syria and exchanged gunfire with Islamic State militants only to discover the captives were not there, officials said.
The mission, authorized by President Barack Obama based on U.S. intelligence, took place earlier this summer, the officials said. The details were disclosed a day after a video surfaced showing a militant beheading 40-year-old Foley.
Syria’s government on Thursday denied any such operation had taken place inside its territory, though it does not control large areas where Islamic State operates.
U.S. officials said U.S. special forces and other military personnel, backed up by helicopters and planes, dropped into the target zone in Syria and engaged in a firefight with Islamic State militants, several of whom were killed.
Among the hostages sought in the mission was Steven Sotloff, the American journalist who was threatened with beheading in the same video that showed the grisly execution of Foley. Several other captives were also sought, a senior administration official said.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the mission was focused on a “particular captor network” within the Islamic State militant group. “As we have said repeatedly, the United States government is committed to the safety and well-being of its citizens, particularly those suffering in captivity. In this case, we put the best of the United States military in harm’s way to try and bring our citizens home,” he said.
He added: “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will work tirelessly to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable.”