The mystique surrounding so-called Jihadi John should not shape our response to the news that the Isis fighter widely assumed to have carried out numerous atrocities has been named as Mohammed Emwazi, a Briton of Kuwaiti heritage from West London.
Terrorist organisations such as Isis run asymmetric strategies that rely on instilling fear in the general public and using social media to appear more influential than they actually are. The myth of Jihadi John as a bogeyman is a self-made symbol of the group, and puts a terrorising personality to the ideology. We must not feed this strategy by buying into the myth. Understanding this is important to our response. If we simply target Jihadi John with a drone strike, we will not remove the problem. When Osama bin Laden, another symbol, was killed in 2011, governments thought that jihadism was dead, but it quickly became clear that his ideas, like all ideas, are bulletproof. Killing Emwazi might even exacerbate the problem as Islamists rally round the flag of extrajudicial methods, feeding the radicalising narrative. If we vilify Jihadi John, we risk missing the underlying problem - the jihadist ideology that gives him his moniker.
Anti-Isis demonstrations across Europe
Anti-Isis demonstrations across Europe
1/10 Anti-Isis protests in Ankara, Turkey
A person holds a flag as police uses tear gas and water cannon in Ankara against demonstrators who protest against attacks launched by Islamic State insurgents targeting the Syrian city of Kobani and lack of action by the government
2/10 Anti-Isis protests in Diyarbaki, Turkey
Protesters clashing with riot police during a demonstration against Isis in Diyarbakir, southeast of Turkey
3/10 Anti-Isis protests in Diyarbaki, Turkey
Kurdish protesters in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir
4/10 Anti-Isis protests in Diyarbaki, Turkey
Kurdish protesters clash with Turkish riot policemen in the city of Diyarbakir
5/10 Anti-Isis protests in Brussels, Belgium
Riot police block Kurdish protesters as they gather in front of the entrance of the European Parliament in Brussels
6/10 Anti-Isis protests in Berlin, Germany
Demonstrators, including one holding a sign that reads: "Save the Kurds of Kobane from IS," and many of them members of Berlin's large Kurdish community, march to protest against the ongoing violence by militias of the Isis in Iraq and Syria in Berlin
7/10 Anti-Isis protests in Hamburg, Germany
Kurds protest against Isis militants advancing through the Syrian border city of Kobani, in Hamburg, Germany
8/10 Anti-Isis protests in London, UK
Kurdish protesters gather at Heathrow Airport as anti-Isis demonstrations take place across Europe
9/10 Anti-Isis protests in Paris, France
Kurds living in France demonstrate in Paris
10/10 Anti-Isis protests in Marseille, France
Kurdish people hold flag in Marseille during a protest against the threat of a "Syrian Kurdish population's genocide" by Isis militants and to support the population of the Syrian Kurdish town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobani
Unmasking this myth should make Emwazi human again, but how is that possible when he has dehumanised himself to the rest of the non-jihadist world by committing such unspeakable crimes? The truth is that at some point, this antithesis of vulnerability was once vulnerable to radicalisation. For Emwazi, this started long ago with efforts to travel to Somalia to join Al Shabaab.
It is clear that CAGE, an Islamist organisation, had significant contact with Emwazi before he travelled to Syria to join a jihadist organisation in 2012. Their relationship with him has shaped the media response to his unveiling, with focus, as you might expect, on the security services’ interest in Emwazi after this earlier attempted jihadist trip, and his sympathy for convicted female terrorist Aafia Siddiqui. These two grievances are often exploited in the radicalisation process, and may have been leveraged to influence Emwazi to go to Syria.
Fingers must be pointed at CAGE for failing to prevent Emwazi’s escalation to violent radicalisation. Understanding the role of grievances as triggers in the radicalisation process, and having a relationship with Emwazi, CAGE had a responsibility to intervene. My organisation, Quilliam, remains committed to upholding human rights in all counter-terrorism legislation and policy, but believes it is possible to do this without reinforcing the Islamist ideology, or promoting jihadist aims.
To truly counter extremism, we must stop feeding jihadist radicalisation. This is abundantly clear in the necessity to uphold human rights and to maintain the moral high ground, to stop giving the opportunity for grievances to be exploited by radicalisers. So too, must we stop pandering to the Isis media strategy by being in awe of the brand. Finally, we must be harsher on CAGE, who are counter-productive in counter-extremism work, more arsonists than firefighters.
Our civil society strategy must tackle the jihadist ideology by upholding British values. And these values are important too when we choose our counter-extremism partners, for I fear that failure in this regard can be more detrimental than anything