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Did UK officials push 'Jihadi John' over the edge?
03:49 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Haras Rafiq is Managing Director of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank. He was a member of the UK government task force on counter-terrorism set up in response to the 2005 London bombings. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

Story highlights

Haras Rafiq: Desired effect of "Jihadi John" brand is -- a marketing tool that uses fear to promote a hateful ideology

Important we ensure we don't allow brand to achieve objective -- to instil fear within Western audience, he says

We need civil society response that challenges extremism of all kinds as social ill, comparable to racism or homophobia, Rafiq says

London CNN  — 

Following the brutal killing of James Foley in August 2014, the masked face of “Jihadi John” first gained prominence across our TV screens, newspapers, and social media feeds.

Since then, as a direct consequence of the copious media attention dedicated to Jihadi John, the image of the masked figure has become ubiquitous and inescapable, allowing for a potent propaganda tool for ISIS, also known as Islamic State. He was on Thursday unmasked as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born 27-year-old from west London, first in the Washington Post and later confirmed by two U.S. officials and two U.S. congressional sources briefed on the matter.

Haras Rafiq

It is important to understand what the desired effect of the “Jihadi John” brand is – a marketing tool that uses fear to promote a hateful ideology. Therefore, although the media has an obligation to report on issues around the world, as consumers of information, we must ensure we don’t allow ISIS propaganda to achieve its desired effect.

What likely began as a crude anonymizing tool to help partially conceal the identity of the killer, has now become a deliberate tool to help further the cause of ISIS’s state-building exercise. This is a tool that is specifically targeted at the West, and particularly the UK, seeking to instil fear by forcing us to ask questions which play to our security concerns.

It is difficult for me to imagine how a young man with a London accent would not only be able to kill innocent individuals, but to do so in the brutal manner in which he has. How is it that a man, who could have quite easily been walking among us every day, was able to kill a generous kind-hearted man such as Alan Henning in cold blood?

Now that the identity of “Jihadi John” is known to be Emwazi, it is vitally important that we ensure that we don’t allow the brand to achieve its objective – to instil fear within Western audiences, advancing ISIS propaganda, and dulling civil society’s willingness to challenge extremism out of fear. One way in which we can do this is to counter the desired dehumanized and threatening perception of Emwazi, and acknowledge why this plays into the hands of Jihadists.

We must also begin to challenge the root cause of ISIS violence – the Salafi-jihadi ideology which underpins it, and the entire Islamist spectrum which legitimizes this murderous fringe. How can it be that an affluent west London Kuwaiti has so much in common with three teenage girls from Bethnal Green?

The reason both of these seemingly disparate groups of have traveled to either commit atrocities, or play a role in ISIS’s state-building exercise, is that they all shared the ideology that underpins the actions of jihadist groups.

It is no surprise that the Emwazi is from an affluent family. Nor is it shocking to hear that he is well educated. Over the last 20 years, there have been countless cases of members of the Salafi jihadist movement who have been affluent, educated or both.

Osama Bin Laden was university educated and his family were billionaires. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of the al Qaeda, was a surgeon who had a degree in medicine from the University of Cairo. This characteristic isn’t only shared by top-ranking officials within jihadist organizations, but is common amongst those leaving from the UK who seek to fulfil lesser roles within the new so-called “Islamic State.” The three girls from Bethnal Green Academy, Amira Abase, Shamima Begum and Kadiza Sultana, were grade-A students set for high academic achievement, according to their family and peers.

Also worth understanding and unpicking is London’s status as a net exporter of extremism. Last week the focus was east London, where the three teenagers from Bethnal Green were tempted by ISIS, and west London now, as it emerged that Emwazi had lived in Ladbroke Grove. It seems that “Londonistan,” as the French government affectionately called our capital in the 1990s, has become a microcosm of the UK experience with extremism, and has fallen foul of failed attempts to tackle this.

By focusing only on the role of law enforcement officials, and by exclusively dealing with extremism once it has become a terrorist act, we are consistently one step behind, and the terrorist intention achieves almost as much as the terrorist act as regards public opinion anyway. Instead we need a civil society response that challenges extremism of all kinds as a social ill, comparable to racism or homophobia. London leading the UK in this shift cannot come soon enough.

Now that the identity of “Jihadi John” is known, it is more important than ever to ensure we don’t simply destroy the brand, but also dismantle the marketing strategy, and dispute the ideology.