ISIS, or The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a fundamental Islamic group at war with seemingly every neighboring country in the Middle East, has among its strengths an active presence on social media websites like Twitter. This network allows ISIS to spread propaganda and recruit others.
Of this propaganda, none carries as much weight as ISIS’s many execution videos, depicting brutal executions of Christians or westerners who have fallen into ISIS’s hands. In many of these videos, a hooded executioner towers over the captives and taunts the West. Nicknamed “Jihadi John,” this mysterious figure was known as much for his apparent importance in the organization as for his appearances in the grotesque videos.
Over the weekend, Jihadi John was identified as Mohammed Emwazi, a man born in Kuwait and raised in London. So what compelled Emwazi to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State?
The question became more complicated over the weekend with the release of emails between Emwazi and a Muslim advocacy group known as CAGE. In the emails, Emwazi recounts a story of abuse and harassment at the hands of British governmental officials and agencies. From 2009 to 2010, Emwazi had several run-ins with the British government, leaving him depressed and angry. In 2012, he vanished, only to reappear in Syria some time later and shortly thereafter became the star of ISIS’s deranged videos. Response to the release of the emails has been met with scorn from those who say that the advocacy group is trying to make the government into a villain, that the group is trying to paint Emwazi as some innocent radicalized by an Orwellian state machine.
I am unsure of the effect that the government’s actions had on Emwazi. Many who knew him as Mohammed Emwazi attest to his hardworking character, while those who know him as Jihadi John speak about his remorselessness and unflinching devotion to ISIS’s doctrine. Emwazi had been on the British government’s radar well before 2010, as a key member in a potential terror cell, and had been interested in the workings of a terrorist group operating in Somalia.
I do not believe that the government’s actions alone radicalized Emwazi, but that they did play a role, by accelerating Emwazi’s distrust of the West. This, combined with his previous fascination with terror networks and the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, was enough to send him down that path.
Though the exact origins of Emwazi’s radicalization are unknowable, there is something that can be learned by this. Governments attempting to prevent terrorism must walk a fine line between rooting out terrorism without contributing to or causing the very thing that they are trying to prevent, a task that is thankless at best.
Without a more responsive and responsible system, cases such as Emwazi’s are only more likely to increase, as ISIS has been very effective indeed at drawing foreign-born fighters to their cause.
Collegian Columnist Jesse Carey is all about disrupting the lame-stream media narrative, except for when it suits him, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Junotbend