Authorities in Paris said Monday that they had identified a French convert to Islam as one of the knife-wielding Islamic State extremists pictured in a grisly video showing a beheaded U.S. aid worker and slaughtered Syrian soldiers.
A French prosecutor, Francois Molins, said one of the militants pictured is Maxime Hauchard, 22, a native of the Normandy region who converted to Islam at age 17 and joined the extremists in Syria. Hauchard had previously gone to Mauritania but found the situation there "was not sufficiently radical," Molins told reporters at a news conference in Paris.
Last year, the prosecutor said, Hauchard left Paris on a flight to Istanbul, Turkey, planning to cross into Syria under the pretext of doing humanitarian work in the war-ravaged nation.
"The humanitarian aspect was just a facade," Molins told reporters.
In July, French news reports said, Hauchard gave an interview from Syria explaining that he had become radicalized via the Internet and asserting that "martyrdom" was the goal of all Islamic State recruits. In the interview with French BFM television, Hauchard said he lived in a barracks with other fighters.
Hundreds of French citizens are thought to be among the more than 1,000 Europeans believed to have traveled to Syria and joined Islamic State or other militant groups, officials say. Some are converts to Islam, like Hauchard, while others are Muslim immigrants or the children of immigrants. Many, if not most, have entered Syria across its long and porous border with Turkey. Turkish authorities have come under intense criticism for not cracking down sufficiently on the militants' transit.
The great majority of Islamic State fighters are Arabs, mostly Syrians and Iraqis, experts say. But the European militants are considered a particular security threat because they can enter Western nations, including the United States, without visas. The media-savvy militants may be emphasizing the foreigners' presence in their ranks to sow more fear in the West, analysts say.
At least one other French citizen may be among the fighters pictured in the video released Sunday, the prosecutor said.
There were reports that a British man had said that one of the militants appeared to be his son. However, he later said that was not the case.
"It doesn't look like him," Ahmed Muthana of Wales told the BBC, after being shown still images from the video. His son, 20-year-old Nasser Muthana, appeared earlier this year in a propaganda video for Islamic State, the BBC said.
The latest video, uploaded to social media Sunday, confirmed the beheading of the U.S. aid worker, Peter Kassig, who was captured in Syria in October 2013 while on a private humanitarian mission. Kassig's execution was not shown in the video, but his severed head was seen at the foot of a militant. U.S. officials later confirmed that the video was authentic.
Kassig, 26, a former U.S. soldier who served in the Iraq conflict, had founded an aid organization to help Syrians.
Kassig is the fifth Westerner known to have been beheaded by Islamic State forces. His killing follows those of a pair of U.S. journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and two British aid workers.
The video released Sunday also shows more than a dozen men identified as Syrian soldiers and pilots being lined up as they are to be executed. Seen in the video are a number of Islamic State fighters who appear to be foreigners, including the man identified as Hauchard and a masked man who speaks with a British accent.
On Monday, French television showed images of what was identified as the family home of Hauchard, in a tree-lined area of picturesque Normandy.