A masked jihadist who alternates seamlessly between English and Arabic as he executes prisoners in a recent Islamic State propaganda video may be an American, and someone in the U.S. could help identify him, the FBI said in a plea for public help.
The man — believed to be an American, likely from the Midwest — switches easily between the two languages while dressed in desert camouflage and wearing a shoulder holster in a 55-minute video released on Sept. 19. Purported Syrian Army prisoners can be seen digging their own graves in the background prior to being shot in the head by the masked militant and other fighters.
“We’re hoping that someone might recognize this individual and provide us with key pieces of information,” said Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. “No piece of information is too small.”
Islamic State militants have released several videos in recent months depicting the beheadings of American, French and English citizens, including journalists and aid workers. The narrator and executioner in those videos has a British accent and has been identified by counterterrorism officials. In contrast, the propaganda video, entitled “The Flames of War,” features a fluent English speaker, apparently a recruitment tool designed to lure additional Westerners to the terror organization.
An intelligence official close to the matter said the executioner, if confirmed to be an American citizen, will be the first documented case of a U.S. citizen engaging in a mass execution for the ISIS terror network.
FBI Director James Comey said last month that about 12 Americans are believed to be fighting alongside extremist groups in Syria, not more than 100 as had been cited for months.
“When I use a number of more than 100, that means people who have gone and come back, people who have attempted to go and we locked them up, people who have gone and stayed,” Comey told reporters at FBI headquarters. “The figure that I’ve been operating with is, ballparkish, a dozen still there fighting with terrorist groups.”
On Saturday, a 19-year-old Chicago man was arrested for allegedly attempting to travel overseas to join the militants. But federal officials are quick to point out that the threat of U.S. citizens going abroad to fight alongside jihadists is not new. In 2010, another Chicago man was imprisoned for planning to travel to Somalia to join al Shabaab. And last year, an Albanian man living in Brooklyn, N.Y., was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempting to travel to Pakistan to join terror organizations.
U.S. intelligence officials estimate there are about 15,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria fighting alongside extremist groups, including the Islamic State. At least two Americans have been killed and at least 13 have been arrested. The precise number is a “big unknown,” said Derek Harvey, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who advises the Pentagon’s Central Command.
“The director is talking about information that they have that is solid,” Harvey told The Associated Press last month in regards to Comey’s remarks. “But there’s a lot of unknowns, and I think that’s why there’s a lot of concern.”
FBI officials have not publicly released the identity of a British-accented masked man in videos depicting the beheadings of American reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff and a British aid worker, David Haines.
Islamic State militants said in a video after the beheading of a fourth person last week, British aid worker Alan Henning, that an Indiana aid worker, 26-year-old Peter Kassig, a former Army ranger, would be next. Kassig's parents pleaded for their son's freedom in a video statement released Saturday.
Kassig, who reportedly converted to Islam and took the name Abdul-Rahman, was taken captive by the Islamic State group Oct. 1, 2013, in Syria, where he was providing aid for refugees fleeing that country's civil war.
Comey, meanwhile, addressed the issue on Sunday during an interview on "60 Minutes."
“These homegrown violent extremists are troubled souls who are seeking meaning in some misguided way,” he said. “And so they come across the propaganda and they become radicalized on their own independent study, and they’re also able to equip themselves with training again on the Internet, and then engage in jihad after emerging from their basement.”
Anyone with information regarding the individuals in the video, as well as anyone traveling abroad to join extremist groups, is asked to visit www.fbi.gov/ISILtips or call (800) CALL-FBI.
Fox News Channel's Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.