Alan Henning, a taxi driver from northern England, traveled to Syria on four separate occasions. Each time, he had a simple mission: save the lives of strangers and alleviate terrible human suffering. Unlike so many of us, Alan Henning gave everything to his mission. As the BBC notes, when driving to Syria in poor health, Henning refused to stay in hotels. He believed the savings would be better spent spreading hope.
A man of particular decency, Alan Henning was murdered by the Islamic State.
His killer was the British thug-turned-beheader commonly known as “Jihadi John” — or as I call him, the masked coward (MC). U.S. intelligence knows his identity. They just don’t know where he is.
In part, that’s because IS has learned from the experience of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Aware of U.S. intelligence capabilities, IS limits its use of cell phones, the Internet, and other electronic communications. But it’s also because intelligence services have other priorities, such as identifying IS leadership figures, logistics centers, and military formations. In short, the hunt for MC is strained by competing resources.
Nevertheless, for three reasons, locating the masked killer must take on a new urgency.
First, MC has taken on major propaganda importance for the Islamic State. As a masked Western servant of al-Baghdadi’s part-psychotic/part-Salafi extremist ideology, MC symbolizes IS’s global identity. His repeated faceless appearances provide a powerful political persona. To the West, MC represents every unknown IS terrorist: the lurking enemy. To IS supporters, MC seems to prove ordained protection: “If he has survived this long,” IS propagandists assert, “God clearly watches over us.” As I’ve explained before, this same principle underlines why the U.S. had to attack IS in its capital, Raqqa: IS’s mythology must be smashed. Until that happens, IS’s recruitment narrative — Grand Theft Auto V in the flesh — will advance comfortably.
Second, it’s probable that ending MC would have a significant operational impact on IS. The fact that MC keeps appearing in hostage videos suggests he’s geographically near the remaining hostages. After the recent Obama-administration leaks, the hostages are now probably being held in or around Raqqa.
As a stronghold urban environment, Raqqa offers IS some protection from coalition Special Forces. Still, were the coalition to escalate its hunt for MC, the effort might also locate the hostages or other high-value IS targets — or at least disrupt the organization’s beheading routine. Until now, IS has reliably beheaded one hostage and threatened another every couple of weeks. Forcefully challenging this death schedule would thus send a resolute American signal to the group: We’re coming for you. Other coalition partners would help support this prioritized MC tasking.
Third, it’s clear that the coalition needs a major, symbolic physical victory. After all, stemming IS power will require more than a few air strikes. At present, the Islamic State casts a shadow of fear over the Middle East — and to some degree, also the West. That must change. If the coalition were to finish off MC, we’d seize the strategic initiative. Moreover, MC’s demise would rebut notions of Western weakness and give IS minions proof of our democratic resolve. Remember, this strategy has a case study: Al-Qaeda in Iraq never fully recovered from the death of its enigmatic leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was found by a U.S.-Jordanian hunter force.
Prioritizing the hunt for MC won’t be easy or without cost. But for joined moral and strategic reasons, the beheader’s time has come.
— Tom Rogan is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute, is based in Washington, D.C., and tweets @TomRtweets.