'Jihadi John': Reaction to the unmasking of Emwazi confirms his PR value

The choice by Isis of 'Jihadi John' as its English-speaking executioner is to do with media impact and shows that this simple PR ploy is very effective

The self-proclaimed “Islamic State” likes to dominate the news agenda and knows how to do so.  It also likes to project power at moments of weakness. Thus most of the world knows that Isis burned a Jordanian pilot to death in a cage but few recall that at the same time the movement was losing the battle for the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. A motto occasionally seen on Isis social media reads: “Media is half jihad.”

The choice by Isis of “Jihadi John” – Mohammed Emwazi – as its English-speaking executioner has everything to do with media impact and the reaction to his apparent unmasking shows that this simple PR ploy is very effective. Similar attention-grabbing stunts in the past include the demand for a $200m ransom for two Japanese hostages (if the demand had been a more prosaic $2m would media interest have been so intent?) and the burning of the Jordanian pilot because decapitation had lost its shock impact. Isis likes to project power and create fear through highly publicised atrocities. The consequent terror has demonstrable military advantages, helping to so terrify and demoralise the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga last year that they fled almost without fighting. Such ruthless PR techniques are often seen as being the product of advanced societies but Isis – for all its savagery – has shown skill in manipulating its image. Generally, it tries to think up something new, which probably means that Emwazi has had his day as executioner-celebrity.

Foreign jihadis fighting for Isis, estimates say they number at least 20,000, have an overblown reputation as a military asset. The great majority of Isis fighters are Iraqis and Syrians recruited from the six million Sunni Arab community living within the confines of the Isis “caliphate”.

Foreign jihadis may be fanatical but they are less militarily expert than the locals. They are therefore often used as suicide bombers or as cannon fodder in battles of attrition, as at Kobani.

Isis evidently knows the fascination of foreign states with members of their own nationality who make their way to the Middle East. And Isis genuinely sees itself as propagating a creed that is universal and non-nationalistic so videos of Saudis, Jordanians and Canadians burning their passports, while pledging allegiance to the caliphate, underlines the strength of the movement.

Is Isis getting weaker? The number of its enemies is impressive and, with one or two exceptions, affecting its ability to achieve its ends. US and allied air strikes have a serious impact, inflicting heavy casualties and making it difficult for Isis to hold fixed positions. In north-east Syria this week the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia fighters are advancing with the aid of heavy US air strikes.

 

 

 

For its part Isis is showing that it is a growing power in Eastern Ghouta east of Damascus. In Iraq it has lost some important towns around Baghdad, but it has not fought to the last man for them – showing that it retains tactical astuteness and does not feel bound to always fight to the death against hopeless odds.

It is suffering heavy casualties but it is conscripting in areas it controls and has lowered the age-limit to below 18. Kurdish commanders at the front say that Isis does not seem short of manpower though sometimes its fighters are less well trained than in the past.

It is able to manufacture explosive for great numbers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and booby traps. There are signs that it is short of money, but this may be because it is having to pay and equip a force that is estimated by senior Kurdish officials to number more than 100,000 men.

Isis is under strain but there is no reason to believe that it is going to collapse.

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