Paris prosecutor François Molins confirmed that Maxime Hauchard, a 22-year-old Muslim convert from northern France, is one of the executioners featured in an Islamic State video released on Sunday that shows the beheading of US aid worker Peter Kassig.
Earlier today French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said there was a "very strong possibility" that one of the executioners was a French citizen. A second Frenchman featured in the video has not yet been formally identified.
The video, which surfaced Sunday on a jihadist website and on Twitter accounts linked to Islamic State militants, also shows the mass beheading of 18 Syrian pilots serving under the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In a break from previous execution videos, the footage does not show Kassig being killed. Instead, a masked militant is filmed delivering a message with a bloodied decapitated head at his feet.
"Peter, who fought against the Muslims in Iraq while serving as a soldier in the American army, doesn't have much to say," says the militant. "His previous cellmates have already spoken on his behalf. But we say to you Obama, you claim to have withdrawn from Iraq four years ago. We said to you then that you are liars."
Hauchard is from the small French village of Bosc-Roger-en-Roumois, in northern France. Born in 1992, he converted to Islam at the age of 17. According to Cazeneuve, he traveled to Mauritania to attend Koranic school in 2012, before going to Syria in 2013 to attend an Islamic State training camp. Also known as Abou Abdallah al-Faransi, Hauchard first made headlines this summer when he gave a Skype interview to French news channel BFM TV from Raqqa, Syria, with his face uncovered. In the interview he described his travel to Istanbul in 2013.
"I had a beard, long hair, military boots," he said. "I was not at all discreet."
DOC BFMTV - Maxime, portrait of a young jihadist, by BFMTV
David Thomson, a journalist for French radio station RFI, was one of the first people to recognize Hauchard from his appearance on BFM TV. During a slow-motion sequence at the start of the video, Hauchard is seen marching with one of the Syrian prisoners, before picking out a long knife from a wooden box.
Il s'agit de Abu Abdallah al Faransi, Maxime de son vrai prénom, converti, originaire de Normandie — David Thomson (@_DavidThomson)16 Novembre 2014
According to Romain Caillet, a researcher and specialist in Islamic movements based in Beirut, Hauchard is nothing but "a foot soldier." Caillet told VICE News that Islamic State militants who appear repeatedly with their face uncovered are "at the bottom of the Islamic State chain of command."
He also explained how this latest footage marks a break from previous beheading videos.
"The staging is different from previous western hostage execution videos. The executioners' faces are uncovered, and they are executing soldiers from Bashar al-Assad's regime," he said. "In my opinion, this video was not intended for a Western audience, and it's obvious that the sequence featuring Peter Kassig was tacked on at the end."
For Caillet, this last minute add-on of the shot showing Kassig's head could indicate that things did not go according to plan for Islamic State militants.
"Peter Kassig is a US army veteran who served in Iraq, and Barack Obama has just announced that the US would be sending more troops to the country to fight the Islamic State. The circulation of [the video of Kassig's] execution was rushed, when it should have been planned and foregrounded," he said.
Caillet theorized that Kassig may have died before his planned execution — perhaps from ill-treatment, sickness, or during a bombing. He also does not exclude the possibility that Kassig may have been killed during an attempted escape.
Another key difference is that at the end of previous videos, the Islamic State has always announced which hostage they plan to execute next. According to Caillet, Islamic State jihadists are running out of Western hostages to kill.
"The problem is that they don't have many hostages left to execute, apart from one American woman. In the past, they've executed Peshmerga female fighters, but never a female hostage."
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said authorities at the General Directorate for Internal Security are now investigating Hauchard, who, according to BFM TV, had a clean record before traveling to Syria.
A French Jail Is Trying to Halt Radicalization by Isolating 'Radical Muslim' Prisoners Together. Read more here.
Follow Virgile Dall'Armellina on Twitter : @armellina