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Forensic analysis of US journalist beheading in Syria could reveal authenticity of footage


The forensic analysis of US journalist beheading in Syria could reveal authenticity of footage.

The scene is a grisly one: a man dressed in an orange jumpsuit is seen kneeling on desert ground; he is approached by an armed, masked militant dressed in black; minutes later he is dead.

The entire incident was recorded on video and released by The Islamic State militant group  and posted to the internet, purportedly showing the beheading of 40-year old American journalist James Foley who was abducted in Syria two years ago.

In the video, titled “A Message to America”, a speaker asserts that the act was revenge for American air strikes against the group in Iraq.

The FBI has reportedly told James Foley’s family that preliminary analysis showed “no reason to believe” the video is not real.

Audio and Video Evidence

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the five-minute propaganda video had not been verified but “all the hallmarks point to it being genuine” and acknowledged that the killer spoke with a British accent.

Mr Hammond told the BBC: “Certainly at first pass that’s what it looks like and we will obviously want to investigate that further.”

Questions of Forensic Audio and Video Analysis

Joel Tobias of UK digital forensics company CYFOR commented:

“The story, while shocking and upsetting, raises several questions for a digital forensics investigator of audio and video evidence – can the evidence be recovered and repaired to forensic standards, is the recording authentic, can the people be identified with a degree of certainty and where and when did the events take place?”

CYFOR are regularly instructed by governments, military, law enforcement agencies and corporates to forensically analyse video footage.

Tobias explains the process involved:

“Using patented scientific software CYFOR first analyse the video and audio under laboratory conditions, in stages that would ascertain authentication for signs that the evidence has been edited or tampered with in some way.  Our technicians analyse not only what is being said, but whether the pictures truly match the audio.”

The militant in the Syrian footage is masked and speaks in English with a British accent.

Identifying the accent and dialect

“From the recent footage from Syria posted on the internet it may even be part of the remit of our investigation to try to identify the device on which the video was taken.  Moreover, as much of the audio in question is voice related, we would seek to utilise our forensic speech technology software to enhance that footage and even identify the accent, dialect and pronunciation characteristics. Examinations such as this can reveal where the speaker is natively from.”

CYFOR’s service of official forensic audio and video authentication can be complex and lengthy but once completed, and if required, it is ready to be presented by our expert witnesses and tested in a court of law.

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