Jihadi John, the British Islamic State militant who was likely identified via DNA by the American and British authorities last year as Mohammed Emwazi, must always have known that this is how his Syrian adventure would end: dead in the street in his new hometown of al-Raqqa. Neither must the jihadis who perpetrated the Paris attacks Friday have been under any illusion that they would survive their coordinated terror assault.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but it’s too early to tell what motivated the jihadi perpetrators. One of the Paris attackers has been identified as a French citizen, and it would be no surprise if some of them had been to Syria. Emwazi is just one of ISIS’s disaffected citizens of Europe, who are seeking retribution for events with which they have very little obvious connection. The Syrian conflict is no longer entirely about Syria; it’s also about festering discontent that began in our own European backyard.
As I explore in my new book Hunting Season, the Islamic State has grown—thrived, even—in their campaigns of targeted assassinations or assaults by proxy rebel armies, and for a simple reason. These types of attacks are central to their mythology: they help firm up their millenarian righteousness, and underscore the jihadis’ belief in the final battle between believers and unbelievers. The attacks also distract ordinary citizens from the real problem: that the Islamic State, despite all its boisterous propaganda, is still not a functioning modern state. It is reliant on kidnapping and extortion, including of foreign hostages, to make ends meet.
Jihadi John, who appeared in several videos showing the beheadings of Western hostages, and the other three members of the jihadi band known as “the Beatles” were, according to freed European hostages, only ever mid-level try-hards in a ruthlessly hierarchical organization; at every level, decisions went back to the top. If he has been killed in a drone strike by the U.S. Armed Forces in Syria, it’s unlikely to be much of a blow to the Islamic State. Yes, it’s clear that depriving ISIL of its gory social media star is embarrassing for the organization’s sense of its own impregnability.
But PR men are cheap, and PR is all most of the British jihadis in the Islamic state are good for; there may be many more Jihadi Johns waiting to step into the spotlight. There will also be others who crave the same kind of martyrdom that the events in Paris seem to have delivered.
Schoolmates of Emwazi that I spoke to told me that he was just an ordinary boy, but shy and very easily led. Jihadi John, the man who he became in those videos, had likely watched adventure TV back in the UK. Like many other jihadis, he went to Syria in search of license and adventure as much as to propagate any religion. He lived by the showy, medieval sword, and likely died by it. His tragedy was that no one—not his friends in West London, not his associates, no one in authority, perhaps not even his family—told him the obvious: to get a grip.
James Harkin is the author of Hunting Season: James Foley, ISIS, and the Kidnapping Campaign that Started a War.