The man behind the mask has been revealed. On Thursday, the Washington Post identified the individual behind the brutal beheadings of several ISIS hostages as Kuwaiti-born London man, Mohammed Emwazi. The 26-year-old computer programmer was reportedly named by anonymous former associates, according to a report by Reuters, and later confirmed by U.S. officials. Emwazi, known only as "Jihadi John" up until this week, had been identified months ago by authorities in both the British and U.S. intelligence communities, said Sajjan Gohel, director of international security at the Asia Pacific Foundation in a comment to CNN, but he was quick to explain that both groups had been hesitant to broadcast the information for fear of giving Emwazi prominence in the media. With the new information, some have rallied for the "well-to-do" University of Westminster grad to be added to the military's list of targets, but a few have raised the question of whether capturing Emwazi is really that important.
Although Emwazi's notoriety is chilling, his actual role within ISIS quarters may be limited. And while the U.S. and its allies should do everything in their power to keep an eye on his movements and subsequently apprehend him (should the opportunity arise), it might be counterproductive to take a metaphorical eye off the ball. In the overall scheme of things, ISIS leaders are more crucial, and Emwazi, as one CNN commentator put it, is simply "chump change".
Speaking with the Washington Post, a spokeswoman for the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. said that while the government was doing their best to find Emwazi and his associates, it could not comment on whether tactics or focus had changed. Explained the spokeswoman:
Our prime minister has been clear that we want all those who have committed murder on behalf of ISIL to face justice for the appalling acts carried out. There is an ongoing police investigation into the murder of hostages by ISIL in Syria. It is not appropriate for the government to comment on any part of it while this continues.
Two former ISIS members told The Guardian that although many knew of Emwazi, referred to by his ISIS peers as Abu Abdullah al-Britani, few dared to speculate about his true identity. Said one man,
I saw him many times. I knew it was him from his build and profile. The people with me knew who he was too. But we could not ask questions — that would have been too dangerous. To us, he was the British guy who slaughters people.
Another U.S. member told the paper that despite being the current cause célèbre, Emwazi has very little power, citing his foreign ties as reason for ISIS leaders to keep him at a distance. "He is like a sergeant in an army," said the member. "Iraqis run the state, Syrians are second, and the foreigners will never get close to them."
Whether or not he holds a significant rank within ISIS may also be unimportant, as various officials and analysts have contended. "[Emwazi's] chief value is being the West's 'boogeyman'," explained former CIA Officer Aki Pertiz in an interview with CNN. "[He's] Isis' man on the ground who tells it like it is and does terrible things to his victims." Added Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, "He's out of central casting for ISIS ... they have a flair for the dramatic. They're very good at not only social media, but also film production and ... figuring out, in terms of narrative, 'what is it that will scare people?'"
ISIS top asset, some analystst argue, isn't a weapon or a blueprint, but Emwazi himself. As recruitment into its ranks begins to skyrocket, its growing reputation requires a proportionate rise in public image — a role for which the masked killer fits snugly. With Emwazi acting as something of a motif among Western culture, ISIS is able to attract potentially like-minded militants to follow in its footsteps. Disassembling that symbol's permanence might very well be the key to slowing the flood of supporters.
It's hard to prove whether another "Jihadi John" wouldn't simply fill the void, should Emwazi ever be captured. And in the meantime, U.S. and British intelligence officials have plenty of bigger fish within ISIS ranks to keep tabs on. Mohammed Emwazi may be a household name today, but if ISIS leaders have their way, the names of countless more innocent hostages will quickly drown it out.
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