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HUNT FOR BRITISH MILITANT in savage killing known as john to ex-hosTage

An international manhunt is under way for the jihadist, believed to be British, who appeared in video footage showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley.

Police are analysing footage of Mr Foley's death for clues amid suggestions that the Islamic State (Isis) extremist - who has been reportedly identified by a former hostage as "John" - is from London. The FBI is leading the search for the killer.

Didier Francois, a former hostage who was released by Isis in April, told Europe 1 Radio yesterday that he had some idea of who the killer could be.

According to a translation, the 53-year-old French journalist said: "Recognised is a very big word. I see roughly who it is."

Mr Francois (near right) said he had been held with Mr Foley from last August until April and he was also held for almost nine months with fellow journalist Steven Sotloff.

"He [Mr Foley] was an extraordinary person with a strong character. He was a pleasant companion in detention because he was solid and collective. He never gave in to the pressure and violence of the kidnappers," Mr Francois said.

He had not spoken of Mr Foley and Mr Sotloff until now because he was warned on his release that if he told the public he had been held with them, reprisals would follow against them.

"Their exact words were 'They'll be punished'," he said. In a separate interview, he said he believed Mr Foley was under the control of Isis or its affiliates the entire time.

whipping

"The guy who killed him is the guy who took him from the start," he said.

He said Mr Foley had been singled out and subjected to extra beatings because his captors had discovered pictures of his brother, who works for the US Air Force.

Nicolas Henin, an independent reporter who was also taken captive by Isis, told L'Express magazine Mr Foley became "the whipping boy of jailers".

"Because of that and as he was American, he got extra-bad treatment. He became the whipping boy of the jailers but he remained implacable," Mr Henin said.

Police and intelligence services in the UK are using image analysis and voice-recognition software, studying social media postings and seeking human tips as they scramble to identify the militant recorded on a video showing Mr Foley's murder.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said the masked jihadist in the recording is likely British. Linguists say his accent suggests he is from the London area.

The Guardian newspaper quoted an unnamed former captive who was held in Raqqa, Syria, as saying he appeared to be one of several British militants - nicknamed The Beatles by hostages - charged with guarding Islamic State prisoners.

John O'Regan, a linguist at London's Institute of Education, said analysts would likely make a voice print of the speaker and compare it to recordings of known suspects. He said the militant spoke with a "multicultural London English" accent but with more formal standard English pronunciation, suggesting that his words denouncing American actions in the Middle East had been carefully scripted.

"The person is taking great care to do 'posh talk,' as it were," Mr O'Regan said.

He added that even though the speech differs from the man's normal speaking voice, "there are enough features in the accent" to provide strong clues to his identity.

But he said that piecing together the puzzle would need other information as well.

"There is no such thing as a voice print fingerprint," he said.

Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, said investigators would use basic detective techniques to narrow down the field of suspects before voice recognition or other sophisticated technology came into play.

He said most Western militants in Syria have Facebook or Twitter accounts, on which they post pictures of themselves and give away other clues to their origins, such as a favourite soccer team.

ingrained

"Just because they are Islamic extremists and behead people doesn't mean they don't talk about football clubs," he said.

He said online photos could be analysed to determine height, weight, eye colour and other information.

He said that even though the militants, most in their teens and 20s, know they should be careful, they are so ingrained in online culture that "they let their guard down".

Meanwhile, it is believed that before Islamic extremists beheaded the American journalist on camera, they demanded $132m (€99m) in ransom money from his family and his employer.

Islamic State terrorists began sending messages to James Foley's family and the GlobalPost last autumn, Philip Balboni, the news agency's head, told the Wall Street Journal.

At first, the infrequent messages made political and financial demands. Then, last week, the fighters sent a hateful email saying Foley would be killed.

"The message was vitriolic and filled with rage against the United States. It was deadly serious," Balboni told CNN. Foley freelanced for GlobalPost, a Boston-based international news agency, before he was kidnapped in Syria in 2012.

Attorney General Eric Holder (right) spoke out against the demanding terrorists in a press conference yesterday.

"This nation, we have long memories and our reach is very wide. We will not forget, and people will be held accountable," he said.

He added that Foley was a "symbol of what's right about the United States".

The same ISIS terrorists who pressed Foley's family for funds demanded at least $100m from the United States government in exchange for the journalist's release, the New York Times reported.

It is unclear whether the requested $132m from the family or the $100m from the US would have satisfied the terrorists' demands.

Sticking to its long-standing policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, the US declined to funnel the funds.

rescuing

Some European countries have spent millions rescuing their citizens from terrorists' hands. Over the past five years, terrorist groups in the Middle East have raked in about $125m in the kidnapping plots.

Four French and three Spanish captives were released this year from Al Qaeda-like groups after the two nations transferred the money.

The US and Britain have refused to fund such terrorists groups, even when its citizens are on the line.

hnews@herald.ie


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