CAIRO — A Croatian hostage abducted in Egypt by Islamic State militants has been beheaded, according to a gruesome image circulated Wednesday online - a killing that, if confirmed, would be the first of its kind involving a foreign captive in the country, undermining government efforts to project stability and buttress an economic turnaround.
The killing of the 30-year-old oil and gas sector surveyor would deal a blow to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's attempts to burnish the country's reputation a week after he unveiled a new extension of the Suez canal in a much-hyped ceremony attended by international dignitaries.
It will also likely rattle companies with expatriate workers in Egypt and cast a cloud over hopes of boosting international investment and tourism following years of unrest in the wake of Egypt's Arab Spring uprising.
The still photo, circulated by IS supporters on social media, appeared to show the body of Tomislav Salopek, a married father of two, wearing a beige jumpsuit like the one he wore in a previous video. A black flag used by the Islamic State group and a knife were planted in the sand next to his body.
A caption in Arabic said Salopek was killed "for his country's participation in the war against the Islamic State," and came after a deadline had passed for Egypt to meet his captors' demands to free jailed Islamist women.
The picture also contained an inset of two Egyptian newspaper reports, one declaring Croatia's support for Egypt's war against terrorism and another noting Croatia's backing of the Kurds, who have been battling the IS group 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.
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, which Egypt brands a terrorist organization though it, too, has condemned IS brutality, said the beheading was a sign the government had failed to curb the rise of extremism.
Concerns were also raised about the economic impact on the country.
"It's obviously bad for the perceptions foreign investors have of Egypt, and I think it's probably bad for the perceptions that potential tourists have," said Hani Sabra, Middle East and North Africa head of the New York-based risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
"This increases the perception that North Africa as a region is unstable across the board - Libya, Tunisia, Egypt," he said, adding that he didn't think it would undermine el-Sissi's government domestically.
"This is something the authorities will use to advance the narrative that they've pushed that they are fighting ruthless, bloodthirsty terrorists," Sabra said.
In a televised address to the nation Wednesday, 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, adding that the search for Salopek will continue as long as there is a glimmer of hope.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said authorities were working to verify the authenticity of the image, adding that Egypt was just one of many nations targeted by extremists. "These terrorist operations target citizens of different nationalities in a number of countries in the region and the world," he told al-Arabiya television late Wednesday.
The White House also declined to verify Salopek's death, but said in a statement issued while President Barack Obama was on vacation that "if confirmed, the United States condemns this brutal act by a terrorist group that has pledged allegiance to ISIL."
"The United States stands shoulder-to- shoulder with Croatia, with Egypt and all of our friends and partners in the fight against terrorism," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington.
The Associated Press could not independently verify the image, though it bore markings consistent with the filmed hostage demand released last week by Egypt's Islamic State affiliate, the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. It was not clear where that video was shot.
In that footage, the group set an Aug. 7 deadline for Egyptian authorities to free female Islamist prisoners detained in a sweeping government crackdown following the 2013 military ouster of the country's Islamist president.
The videotaped demand was shot in the style of previous IS propaganda videos.
The sister of an Egyptian woman jailed on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, Esraa el-Taweel, said she spoke to her sister about the threat against Salopek's life during a recent prison visit.
"She rejected that the life of an innocent man who is not responsible for other detainees be negotiated," said Doaa el-Taweel. "She rejected the whole thing."
As last week's deadline passed, 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, an Egyptian security official said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists, he said Salopek's driver, who was left behind by the kidnappers, said the gunmen who seized the Croat on a highway 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 Islamic State affiliate is based, or the vast Western Desert, which is a gateway to volatile and lawless Libya, home to its own Islamic State branch.
Salopek, a surveyor working with France's CGG Ardiseis, was abducted on July 22. The company has an office in the leafy Cairo suburb of Maadi, where many expatriates and diplomats live.
Egypt has seen an increase in violence since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, with attacks by suspected Islamic extremists in both the Sinai Peninsula and the mainland focusing primarily on security forces.
But this would be the first time the local Islamic State affiliate has captured and then beheaded a foreigner in Egypt, a major escalation as the country tries to rebuild its crucial tourism industry after years of unrest following the 2011 revolt that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Last December, the affiliate claimed responsibility for the killing of an American oil worker with the Texas-based energy company Apache Corp, which had reported that one of its supervisors was killed several months earlier in an apparent carjacking in the Western Desert.
Militants have also targeted foreign interests, including the Italian Consulate, which was hit with a car bomb last month. That attack came two days after another bomb killed Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat in an upscale Cairo neighborhood.
The Islamic State group holds about a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria in its self-declared "caliphate." In Syria, IS militants have killed foreign journalists and aid workers, starting with American journalist James Foley last year.
In Libya, an IS affiliate released a video in February showing its fighters beheading a group of Coptic Christians from Egypt, and in April, another showing them beheading and shooting to death groups of Ethiopian Christians. Another video, released in February, showed them burning to death a Jordanian pilot who was captured when his F-16 crashed during a U.S.-led air raid last year.