Trail of accent clues could lead to Foley’s ISIS killer

With investigators on both sides of the Atlantic attempting to unearth information about the Islamic State killer of U.S. journalist James Foley, the militant’s accent could provide vital clues about his identity.

Scotland Yard told that it is not able to discuss specific details of its investigation. However, an expert in forensic linguistics said that the killer's speech in the gruesome YouTube video of Foley's beheading could offer valuable leads.

The militant appears to use an accent known as Multicultural London English, or MLE, according to Dominic Watt, senior lecturer in forensic speech science at the U.K.’s University of York. MLE often develops in areas where English becomes the ‘lingua franca’ for native speakers of other languages, he  explained.

“The community of speakers of Multicultural London English is so diverse – people come from all sorts of language backgrounds,” said Watt. “It may be that people speak English with their friends, but not necessarily at home.”

Muslim community leaders in the U.K. have vowed to help the country's police and security forces in their attempts to identify Foley's killer.

The British media has already reported some details about the militant's identity, with a former ISIS hostage telling The Guardian that the man, who called himself "John," led a group of three British jihadists guarding captives in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Northern Syria. The former prisoner described the militant as intelligent, educated, and devoted to the teachings of radical Islam. The hostage and his fellow captives reportedly referred to their British guards as "The Beatles."

Based on his speech in the YouTube video, there has  been plenty of speculation about whether the militant is a native or non-native English speaker. “I think that one of the reasons why it doesn’t sound native to a lot of people is that [the killer’s speech] is more what we call ‘syllable timed’,” said Watt. This means that his syllables have a more equal length than typically found in standard English, a key feature of MLE.

“It could be because he is from overseas or grew up in an immigrant family,” Watt explained, but noted that MLE can sometimes be found outside the immigrant community.

The U.K. also has a wide variety of regional accents, and different parts of London often have specific speech patterns, something which could prove useful to investigators. The jihadist appears to use an accent from London or its environs, and there has been speculation that he may be from the southern part of the British capital.

“From the profiling that I have done, I could see why there are grounds for thinking that this person is from south London origins – south-east London could be a plausible claim,” said Watt.

Based on his voice, the forensic linguist also estimates that the ISIS militant is in his mid-to-late 20s.

Experts have already cited the importance of technology in the hunt for the Foley’s killer.

With voice recognition technology available, Watt said that investigators may use a technique called ‘triangulation’ to compare the YouTube video with other recordings, such as existing police interviews. The audio will also be compared with a sample group of similar speakers.

“You do a comparison of the acoustic properties of the incriminating sample against a suspect recording and recordings of other example speakers,” he said. “What you’re trying to do is get a handle on how typical the incriminatory recording and suspect recording are in the broader context .”

James Foley had been kidnapped in Syria in 2012. The Pentagon said Wednesday that troops were recently sent to Syria in an attempt to rescue hostages held by Islamic State, including Foley, but failed to find them.

On Tuesday, Islamic State -- also known as ISIS -- posted the video of Foley’s killing on YouTube, prompting worldwide outrage.

It is estimated that up to 400 British fighters are within the ISIS ranks, according to a BBC report

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers