A combination of old-fashioned police work and new technology may unmask the Islamic extremist who beheaded American journalist James Foley.
The killer ensured that the task won’t be easy by cloaking himself in loose black clothing, leaving only his eyes and the bridge of his nose visible in the graphic video that sparked denunciations from world leaders and a reinvigorated battle against the group known as Islamic State.
Without a face to study, officials in the U.S. and U.K. are analyzing the British-accented voice narrating the video, other videos, statements and social-media postings for clues to the man’s identity, said Todd Hinnen, a former national security official at the U.S. Justice Department.
“You can be absolutely certain that every single international, bilateral and multilateral linkage will be opened up now by the U.S. and U.K. authorities, agencies, and counterterrorism organizations,” said David Livingstone, an associate fellow at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London and a specialist in counterterrorism and cybersecurity. “There will be layer after layer of intelligence for finding data, which can start to narrow down the suspect.”
The U.K. is playing a leading role in the investigation because of the accent of the video’s narrator, which has brought linguistics specialists into the probe. Prime Minister David Cameron has said “it looks increasingly likely it is a British citizen.”
That makes it “likely he is in the passport office database” of the U.K., said Anil Jain, a professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing who studies biometric recognition techniques.
Investigators will begin the hunt by trying to determine where and when the beheading video was shot, according to a former official with the U.S. National Security Agency who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Islamic extremist who beheaded American journalist James Foley.
With an approximate time and location of the video, analysts can go back in digital time and determine what devices were active at that spot.
The U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ maintains a large listening post in Cyprus that monitors phone, Internet and other electronic communications in the eastern Mediterranean. The U.S. NSA collects similar data in partnership with GCHQ and other intelligence agencies and on its own.
The NSA and GCHQ also have a vast pool of data from Iraq and Syria, much of it metadata from devices such as mobile phones that constantly ping nearby towers, the former official said.
The time the video was uploaded will help provide a range, and if the investigators are lucky, the metadata associated with the file will contain a time stamp. Investigators can match that data with chatter among extremists as they prepared the operation or discussed moving Foley.
The time of the recording can then be paired with details about weather conditions in the region and the geography in the video to help determine the precise location. Even the angle of the shadows may help.
The fact that the video appears to have been shot in a remote location will work to investigators’ advantage, the official said. The number of devices in sparsely populated areas of northern Iraq or eastern Syria will be dramatically smaller than in the region’s major cities.
Given the nondescript desert backdrop, though, determining when the video was shot will be easier than pinning down its location, the former official said.
The desolate scene suggests to Patrick Skinner, director of special projects at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm, that the video was shot in Syria, far from the Iraq border so that the militants wouldn’t have to worry about U.S. airstrikes. Skinner, a former CIA case officer experienced in counterterrorism, said intelligence and law enforcement officials will look for distinctive landmarks in the video in addition to focusing on Foley’s murderer.
The questions the British intelligence services are asking include who was involved in preparing and uploading the video, according to a U.K. government official, who asked not to be named discussing security matters.
Facial recognition will be difficult because the killer covered his face with a mask.
“That poses a challenge,” said Jain, the biometrics analyst in Michigan.
“Research has shown that the eye component of the face can give you close to 70 percent of the components found on the whole face,” he said. “The problem with this particular video frame is that the eyebrows aren’t visible.”
While it will be helpful to study the eyes, “you are probably not going to get the retina because of the distance,” said James Jasinski, senior vice president at Digital Signal Corp. in Chantilly, Virginia, who had worked for the FBI.
“My impression from looking at the film is there isn’t a lot of information that you can get because of the distance,” Jasinski said.
Other information to be sifted include details used to identify individuals who have been overseas for some time, such as passport databases, information on cars, unpaid tax bills or the use of credit cards overseas, said Livingstone, a former director of information technology for the U.K Naval Air Command.
East London accent
Intelligence and law enforcement officials in the U.K. are examining the possibility that the video’s narrator, who speaks with an East London accent, isn’t the person seen beheading Foley. It’s possible that the killer and the narrator are different people because the sound in the video is out of sync with the picture, the U.K. official said.
Techniques such as voice-pattern analysis can pin down the narrator’s accent to a particular borough of London and determine whether the person has been the subject of previous intelligence collection. They also can check for any prior data that was intercepted, said Livingstone.
Investigators will try to match the voice on the video to existing telephone surveillance intercepts of a number of U.K. jihadists who have traveled to Syria or Iraq.
They will do the same with intercepts from the combat zone, but those are likely to be limited to Islamic State’s leadership, and the executioner may not be one of them, according to the former NSA official.
Although voiceprint software can help find a match, the technology has proved unreliable in the hunt for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said.
Voice-recognition software such as that used by Cupertino, California-based Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) Siri can digitize human speech, but such software is less adept at distinguishing one human voice from another or matching two recordings to the same person.
In Iraq, NSA translators who listened to hours of insurgent phone conversations each day proved better than software at making such matches. The human ear still beats computers in picking up nuances unique to a human voice.
Despite all the difficulties, NSA tracking units successfully accomplished similar missions time and time again in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the former agency official.
Terrorists who use social media to spread their message and communicate leave better clues to their identity online.
In each statement distributed through sharing services such as Google Inc.’s YouTube, Twitter Inc. (TWTR) or Facebook Inc. (FB) there is “a means of production and release that requires communication and coordination amongst a group of individuals,” said Hinnen, now a partner at Perkins Coie LLP, a Seattle law firm.
“That provides an opportunity for intelligence and law enforcement,” Hinnen said.
The work is time-consuming, and intelligence officials say that it may not pay off. It depends on the chance that the executioner or members of his coterie were carrying phones or other devices that had their batteries installed or were turned on when the video was shot, for example.
Even without that, investigators have other ways to attack the challenge. The U.S., U.K. and others also may have human sources that can fill in the gaps.
Hinnen said the U.S. and U.K. intelligence services “should have a very good idea” of both the numbers and the identities of individuals who have traveled to the region. They also will be looking at the amount of time people have been there -- something that might indicate whether someone had risen to a leadership position.
The U.K. government estimates that 400 to 500 Britons are fighting with resistance groups in Syria and Iraq. As many as 250 have returned, and they’re being investigated by police and MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency. This year, 23 passports have been confiscated to stop people from traveling, and 69 people arrested for incidents related to Iraq-Syria terrorism.
British Muslims are traveling from London to join the fighting, and also from across England, including northern areas such as Blackburn, Yorkshire and Leeds, said Alexander Hitchens, head of research and information at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London.
Relatives of those possible jihadis, fellow worshipers at local mosques, teachers and religious leaders all may have useful information, said a U.S. law enforcement official familiar with terrorism cases. Some freed hostages also may have clues about who held them, he said.
Given the narrator’s accent, this official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an active case, London’s Metropolitan Police and MI5 can focus on certain areas of London, and the brutality of Foley’s beheading may prompt some people to cooperate.
Still, the hunt for the killer is apt to require time, particularly with the lack of a reliable law-enforcement partner in Iraq or Syria.
“The challenge here is this is obviously a horrific act of violence and a tragedy that is hard to separate from the broader geopolitical conflict that is taking place,” said Hinnen, a former acting assistant attorney general in the Obama administration who also worked in the terrorism division of President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.
“That makes for some very difficult decisions and a very challenging environment to try and investigate something like this.” Hinnen said.