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  1. World
  2. Middle East
3 September 2014updated 12 Oct 2023 10:15am

David Cameron to chair emergency meeting on UK hostage death threat

After a video apparently showing the beheading of another American journalist has been released, a Cobra meeting will be held to discuss the threat to a UK hostage.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The Prime Minister is to chair an emergency meeting today to discuss how Britain should respond to the threat by Islamic State (also known as Isis) militants to kill a British national they’ve held hostage.

The Cobra committee comes the day after another kidnapped US journalist, Steven Sotloff, appears to have been beheaded by the militants, in a video released online claiming to show the killing.

According to the BBC, Downing Street confirmed on Tuesday this week that it was aware of a UK hostage being held by IS, the name of whom his family have asked not to be released by the media. Yet it is reported that David Cameron has been aware of this hostage situation for a while, so it has been informing his approach to the situation in Iraq.

The footage – released yesterday – shows a clip of the UK hostage at the end of the video, and also again a masked jihadi who appears to have an English accent. It has come out a fortnight after the same militant group put out a video showing the killing of another US journalist, James Foley, which also showed a militant with an apparently English accent, dubbed Jihadi John by the British media.

According to the BBC’s Today programme this morning, government sources are asserting that there will be no “knee-jerk response” to this news by the cabinet, and the Prime Minister instead will set out “a considered approach”.

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However, although insiders are playing down the possibility of a retaliatory strike against IS, the pressure has been mounting on the PM as the situation in the Middle East intensifies. On the day of the return of MPs to parliament on Monday following summer recess, he gave a speech to the Commons explaining how the government is attempting to widen and strengthen anti-terror laws in light of the threat of British nationals going out to fight with jihadists and returning to the UK.

In his statement, he suggested that if Britain were to intervene in the area, in an emergency situation, then there could be the scenario of acting first, and telling parliament afterwards – rather than securing a vote from the Commons first, before the country takes on an offensive role. This, along with his assertion that he has not ruled out military action against IS, suggests that intervention beyond a humanitarian and surveillance role may be on the cards. It may be Cameron’s only choice if the British government is unable to avoid the death of a British hostage.

The former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was in the role ten years ago when the government took Britain into the invasion of Iraq, told Today this morning that military intervention may be necessary. He said that “increased pressure for military involvement” among some MPs in parliament is “not unreasonable”. And after asserting his support for arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who are fighting IS, saying, “we ought to have a more active policy of support”, he added that there was a case for British involvement in military action against IS forces, at least in Iraq. He said, if the US asked the UK to join in air strikes in the area, “my instinct would be probably to do so. No one’s aware more than I am of the legacy of the 2003 Iraq war. Of course we should learn from the past, but we shouldn’t be paralysed by the past at the same time…”

Straw also spoke about how to deal with the situation of British hostages being held, having been involved in the Ken Bigley case a decade ago. He said there would be the need to react “secretly, privately”, to some extent, and also stated, “you need communication with the hostage-takers, but not negotiation… Not entertaining the payment of ransoms to hostage-takers, but at the same time you need some communication with the hostage takers…” He acknowledged the heightened sensitivity brought about by mass-communication today: “there was a lot of pressure ten years ago, but there wasn’t social media available in the levels that it is now.”

With heavyweight figures on both sides, including Nick Clegg and the PM himself, not being averse to military intervention, it may only be a matter of time.

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