The fate of Mohammed Emwazi, 27, the knife-wielding black-masked British citizen from Kuwait known as "Jihadi John" appears bleak after he was targeted by an American drone airstrike around Raqqa, Syria, ISIS's adopted capital city. Emwazi was featured in more than half a dozen brutal propaganda videos since August 2014, most of which show the beheadings of Western hostages from the United States, Britain and Japan. If the past is prologue, malevolent actors may share the terror stage temporarily, but the evil productions last far longer, and pose an evolving and complex risk to both the West and our Muslim allies.
Evil, Now Streamed on the Internet
His first video, released in August 2014, showed the beheading of American reporter James Foley. Over the next three months ISIS released a series of grisly beheading videos featuring Emwazi, starting with the killing of another American reporter, Steven Sotloff. This was soon followed by videos of British humanitarian aid specialists David Haines and Alan Henning, as well as the mass beheadings of Syrian soldiers and the remains of another American, Abdul-Rahman [Peter] Kassig, yet another aid worker. In January 2015 Emwazi appeared in two videos culminating in the beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.
In the November 2014 mass beheading video Emwazi taunted the West:
To Obama, the dog of Rome, today we're slaughtering the soldiers of Bashar, and tomorrow we'll be slaughtering your soldiers. And with our last mission, we'll bring this final and last crusade and the Islamic Sate will soon, like your puppet David Cameron said, we'll begin to slaughter your people on your streets.
Emwazi, a University of Westminster graduate with a computer sciences background, was surveilled by Britain's MI-5 spy agency for years and was deported in 2009 from Tanzania. According to the Washington Post he went there to consort with African religious extremists from the terror group al-Shabaab. He reportedly entered Syria in 2013, according to CAGE, a British advocacy organization.
The possible killing of the English accented killer-spokesperson comes during a week where ISIS has dominated international headlines. ISIS's active Sinai faction, which has previously killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers and police and lobbed rockets into Israel, is believed responsible for the bombing of a Russian Metrojet plane on October 31 that killed 224 people. Apparent ISIS bombings yesterday in a Hezbollah-dominated Shia Muslim area of South Beirut, Lebanon killed 43 and injured more than 200. ISIS and Hezbollah, the latter of which supports Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, have been facing off in a civil war that has displaced millions and killed more than 200,000. ISIS has also been involved in pitched battles this week for the strategic city of Sinjar, which appears to have fallen to Iraqi Kurds. An Ohio man was charged by federal authorities with reposting ISIS material in an effort to target Americans and soldiers.
Another Soldier of Evil Dead, But There Are Always Others
Emwazi, if he is dead, is the latest in a string of Internet jihadist celebrities targeted by the West, or others, whose notoriety, while expansive, was short-lived. Computer expert Junaid Hussain, 21, a strategically far more important, though lesser known figure in ISIS's CyberCaliphate, was killed in August during a nearly identical strike to the one that probably killed Emwazi. Hussain, also known as Abu Hussain al-Britani, was key not only to ISIS's recruitment of Western youth, but also to the organization's hacking efforts, including those against public accounts of U.S. Centcom forces.
Hussain was involved in an intercepted bomb plot against a British military parade, and tweeted congratulations to the extremists who opened fire at a controversial Texas art contest earlier this year satirizing the Prophet Mohammad. His greatest success, however, was his role in the Internet recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters and supporters to join ISIS's efforts. While ISIS's recruiting operations remain in place, some have speculated that his death may have led to a temporary decline in the disturbing and continuing string of American departures for the overseas terror group. If the Internet activity of ISIS notables connotes a virtual omnipresence, so to does their killings in the heart of their adopted caliphate by American counter-technology.
When 9/11 occurred, successful English language Internet recruitment of foreign fighters was virtually non-existent. As I wrote for American Behavioral Scientist in 2001:
While Middle Eastern terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah have support Web sites in both English and Arabic that promote anti-Israeli and anti-American propaganda and their "martyrs," Al Qaeda had no such permanent presence on the World Wide Web. However, in the period after the devastating September 11, 2001 terror attacks, authorities have pieced together a disturbing composite that indicates Al Qaeda was a computer-savvy terrorist conglomerate.
Since then a variety of groups, including al Qaeda, have become increasingly sophisticated in expanding their Internet recruitment methods. However, the track record of the individual actors involved has been fraught with danger. The two American Muslim-convert leaders, Yousef al-Khattab and Younes Abdullah Muhammad, of Revolution Muslim, a website tied to over a third of domestic violent Salafist plots in the United States around the turn of the last decade, were convicted on federal charges. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's American Internet pioneer cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Inspire Internet magazine editor Samir Khan were killed in a September 30, 2011 airstrike in Yemen.
Al Qaeda's original, though less successful, Western English language internet recruiter, California born convert Adam Gadahn, was charged with treason, but he died in an American airstrike on January 19. In his videos, Gadahn, "exudes the zealotry of a convert, and of youth," wrote Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker. "Sometimes, his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from The Lord of the Rings."
Two young rappers, Alabamian Omar Shafik Hammami and British rapper Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, were turned on by the very foreign terror groups they sojourned overseas to join. Bary is allegedly on the run in Turkey from both British authorities and ISIS, while Hammami, also known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, will no longer be warbling, "Make Jiahd With Me." He was killed in a September 2013 attack in Somalia by the al-Shabaab leaders to whom he once swore allegiance.
Extinguishing the Brand Is Harder Than Killing the Salesman
It seems that being an Internet "brand promoter" in the contemporary terrorist world is an evanescent existence, while the brand itself is harder to extinguish. As Fareed Zakaria noted on CNN today, regarding instability, extremism and discontented Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, "The military part is easy, the political part is really hard." In contrast, President Obama noted to ABC this morning that the military part may not be as easy as Zakaria posited: "What we have not been able to do is completely decapitate [ISIS's] command and control structure."
The political dysfunction and a geographically expanding affiliate network of a quasi state terror operation sets the stage for the contemporary risk, as I write in this month's American Behavioral Scientist:
The Internet unifies a growing number of ISIL-influenced extremists for armed conflict, against both near enemies in the Middle East, as well as far ones in the West. This is not only true for networking, radicalization and inducing foreign travel, but as a tool for those who stay home, to assist in selecting methods, instrumentalities and targets for attack. As web use grows internationally, and ISIL and their imitators' sophistication expands, a fearsome expanding constellation of new extremists will execute where their smaller pioneering predecessors left off.