Jihadi John is the moniker of one of the most notorious members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He appears in videos that involve the beheading of foreign hostages such as James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Kenji Goto. One of his most striking features does not lie in his external appearance of wearing a black balaclava or wielding a serrated blade but in his British accent. On February 27, the Washington Post had identified Jihadi John as Mohammed Emwazi, a college graduate from the University of Westminster whose family migrated to the United Kingdom in 1994. Now that more information has been released about the life and mindset of Mohammed Emwazi, there are several key take-aways from his life that provides insight on how the Islamic State uses religious propaganda to attract and brainwash foreign fighters, many of whom would not be suspected of aiding a terrorist organization.
Emwazi came from a well-educated middle class background in the United Kingdom and received a degree in computer programming from the University of Westminster. According to Shiraz Maher, a Senior Fellow at International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, Jihadi John’s middle class background “demonstrates again that radicalization is not necessarily driven by poverty or social deprivation.” Judging this statement to be correct, one must ask what drove a man with a comfortable life and a college degree towards the ISIS killing fields in Iraq and Syria. What the Islamic State has to offer to its adherents is worded perfectly by George Orwell in his analysis of human nature and the appeal of Nazism:
“Hitler… knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, … they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet…”
Orwell’s statement is not too detached from the appeal that ISIS makes to its fighters. The Islamic State attracts many of its foreign fighters because of its promise of a life with a purpose, adventure and martyrdom. Many of these fighters are disillusioned young men and women who have a yearning to become part of a group bigger and better than themselves, and yearn for someone to help guide them and focus their frustrations on a better purpose in life. The basis of these illusory promises is motivated by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, in which the world is in a struggle between good and evil, a fight between the believers and the nonbelievers. Such a fundamentalist ideology not only espouses such a black and white interpretation of the world, but also foreshadows an upcoming apocalypse that will take place in the Syrian town of Dabiq, which is why ISIS calls on the West, many times in their videos, to put boots on the ground.
The lackluster involvement of world powers in Syria evokes a quote by Edmund Burke that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” One man who lived by this quote goes by the name of Peter Kassig. Peter Kassig was a former US Army Ranger who was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and later worked in Syria and Lebanon as a humanitarian aid worker. He created his own aid group called SERA, Special Emergency Response and Assistance, whose main purpose was to provide Syrian and Lebanese refugees with medical supplies, medical assistance, food, aid and clothing. The purpose of Peter Kassig’s work was to impart a “message that it sends to people back home, that one of the best aspects of the American way of life is our ability to come together in the face of adversity and to stand beside those who might need a helping hand.” Peter Kassig said these words on January 8th, 2013 in an article published by TIME Magazine, just one year prior to being captured and detained by ISIS. Kassig’s actions provide a stark contrast from Jihadi John’s in that Kassig was fulfilling the religious tenets of giving his life to help and save the lives of others, while the jihadists were sacrificing their lives in order to exploit and take away from others. In his final letter to his parents before his death, Peter Kassig assured his parents that, “If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.”