The beheading of an American journalist at the hands of a London-accented extremist prompted deep reckoning among Britons on Wednesday over the particularly vicious role their countrymen are playing in the destabilization of the Middle East.
Security officials in London have been sounding the alarm for more than a year over the large number of foreigners in Syria, with the chief of Scotland Yard telling reporters last week that about 500 Britons are among the thousands of Westerners who have joined the fight.
The government’s concerns have focused on the possibility that some of those fighters will return home, newly radicalized, and carry out attacks in Britain.
But the video released Tuesday that showed the execution of American journalist James Foley highlighted just how central foreigners have become to some of the most extreme behavior by militant Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria.
“Foreign fighters are often used for the most brutal acts because they are the most ideologically motivated,” said Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. “The locals may say, ‘That’s not the kind of thing we do here.’ But the outsiders don’t know that.”
Security officials say that most of the Britons who have left to fight in Syria, and increasingly in Iraq, have joined the Islamic State, the extremist group that asserted responsibility for Foley’s killing.
Neumann said the group probably selected a Brit to carry out the execution both because he was willing and because it knew that his voice would resonate across the West.