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ISIS Beheading Leaves Fate Uncertain for Last Two Hostages

A frame from video released by the Islamic State on Sept. 2014. Islamic State video

The beheading of Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, the third American to lose his life at the hands of ISIS, leaves the militants with two known remaining Western hostages — one of them an American woman.

But ISIS broke a pattern when it released a gruesome video announcing Kassig’s murder to the world. The militants usually threatened the life of the next hostage they intend to kill. This time, they did not.

The American woman, 26, was working on a humanitarian mission in Syria when she was kidnapped on Aug. 4, 2013. Neither her family nor U.S. officials have named her publicly, fearing that doing so might further endanger her.

Officials Search for Clues in ISIS Video of Peter Kassig’s Death 2:23

The other Westerner known to be held by ISIS is John Cantlie, a British journalist who has appeared in several propaganda videos for ISIS and almost certainly under pressure from the militants.

Why ISIS did not threaten anyone in the Kassig video is something of a guessing game, but security analysts who have studied the militant group offered a handful of working theories on Monday.

“The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end, and good will prevail”

“They only have so few bargaining chips left,” said Colin P. Clarke, an associate political scientist at the Rand Corp. research group who has studied insurgency for more than a decade. “They want to be very smart, very strategic and very deliberate.”

Evan Kohlmann, an NBC News terrorism analyst with the security consulting company Flashpoint Global Partners, said it could be a sign that Cantlie’s life is in danger — “or that they are simply running out of hostages.”

Now that ISIS is known the world over as a threat, and with the United States pounding the terror group's positions daily in Iraq and Syria, kidnapping other Westerners is not nearly as easy as it was a year ago, when Kassig, the American woman and others were captured.

And another analyst at Flashpoint, Laith Alkhouri, pointed out that there is no way to be certain that there are not other Western hostages. For the two whose identities are known, their fates are unclear.

The militants could be planning something else for the American woman, like a propaganda role similar to Cantlie’s, one analyst said.

The most recent video in which Cantlie appears, from late October, mimics a television news report. Cantlie talks to the camera from what appears to be Kobani, the Syrian town on the Turkish border contested by ISIS fighters and Syrian Kurds backed by the United States.

NBC News has also reported that ISIS has demanded $6.6 million ransom for the American woman — or the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist whose conviction for attempted murder by a U.S. court in 2010 is a cause celebre among militants.

The United States and Britain have stressed that they do not negotiate with terrorists, a departure from some other Western countries, which have paid millions of dollars for the release of their own hostages. But ISIS may raise Siddiqui as an issue again in an attempt to gain Pakistani followers, Clarke said.

The absence of a threat to another hostage could also be a sign that ISIS has been weakened by U.S.-led strikes and is taking time to regroup, analysts said.

“They only have so few bargaining chips left”

The video did not show Kassig's beheading on camera, and was not as slickly produced as the four other ISIS videos of beheadings of Westerners. That is a possible sign that “they no longer have a safe haven that they had in the past, where they can make it theatrical,” Clarke said.

Kassig, who began converting to Islam before his abduction, and changed his name from Peter to Abdul-Rahman, was an aid worker and a former Army Ranger. His parents, Ed and Paula, spoke briefly Monday outside their church in Indianapolis and called for healing and freedom for people being held against their will.

“The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end, and good will prevail,” Paula Kassig said.