CAIRO—ISIS sympathizers circulated an image Wednesday that appears to show the grisly aftermath of the beheading of a Croatian hostage abducted in Egypt, which if confirmed would mark the first such killing of a foreign captive in the country since the extremist group established a branch in Egypt last year.
The killing of the 30-year-old oil and gas sector surveyor will likely rattle companies with expatriate workers in Egypt and cast a cloud over President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s attempts to boost international investment and tourism following years of unrest.
The still image, shared by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) supporters on social media, appeared to show the body of Tomislav Salopek, a married father of two, wearing a beige jumpsuit resembling the one he had worn in a previous video. A black flag used by ISIS and a knife were planted in the sand next to him.
The photo carried a caption in Arabic that said Salopek was killed “for his country’s participation in the war against the Islamic State [ISIS],” and after a deadline had passed for the Egyptian government to meet his captors’ demands.
The picture also contained an inset of two Egyptian newspaper reports, with one headline declaring Croatia’s support for Egypt in its war against terrorism and another saying Croatia reiterated its support for the Kurds, who have been battling ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Croatian troops fought in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and still serve in the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
In a televised address to the nation, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said authorities there could not confirm the killing with certainty.
“We cannot 100 percent confirm it is true, but what we see looks horrific. A confirmation may not come for several days,” he said, appealing for calm and adding that officials will not stop searching for Salopek as long as there is any hope.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment.
Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s prestigious religious institute, condemned the apparent killing, calling it a “demonic act of which all religions and human traditions are innocent.” The statement also said Islamic law stipulates that it is forbidden to shed the blood of foreigners.
Exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood group, branded a terrorist organization by authorities, said the beheading was a sign that the government had failed to curb the rise of extremism in the country.
The Associated Press could not independently verify the image. However, it bore markings consistent with a filmed hostage demand released last week by the group, which calls itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. It was not clear where the video was shot.
In that video, the ISIS affiliate set an Aug. 7 deadline for Egyptian authorities to free “Muslim women,” a term referring to female Islamist prisoners detained in a sweeping government crackdown following the 2013 military ouster of the country’s Islamist president.
The extremists’ videotaped demand was titled “A Message to the Egyptian Government,” and was shot in the style of previous ISIS propaganda videos. It came just a day before el-Sissi hosted a much-hyped ceremony with foreign dignitaries to mark the opening of a new section of the Suez Canal.
As the deadline expired Friday, an Egyptian security official said that security forces were searching for Salopek across the country, focusing on the western provinces of Matrouh and Wadi Gedid, which border Libya, as well as Beheira in the Nile Delta and Giza, part of greater Cairo.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to journalists, the official said Salopek’s driver, left behind by the kidnappers, said that the gunmen who seized the Croat on a highway just west of Cairo had Bedouin accents.
That suggests they could have come from a variety of isolated places in Egypt, including the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, where Egypt’s ISIS affiliate is based, or the vast Western Desert, which is a gateway to volatile and lawless Libya, home to its own ISIS branch.