Few individuals deserved to eat a Hellfire missile as much as Mohammed Emwazi — a.k.a. Jihadi John, aka the Masked Coward. Responsible for torturing and slaughtering Western hostages and innocent Muslims with grotesque zeal, Emwazi has been a human metaphor for the Islamic State. But even aside from this righteous fulfillment of justice, his demise — reported and highly likely, though not yet officially confirmed — would be a significant strategic success.
For a start, U.S. and British Intelligence Services have been working hard to locate and kill Emwazi. Hiding in the Islamic State’s Syrian fortress capital, Raqqa, and cognizant of U.S.-U.K. intelligence monitoring, Emwazi, like other ISIS leaders, would have made great efforts to avoid detection (see my point 1 here). Indeed, as the BBC’s Frank Gardner reports, Emwazi “took particular care not to leave a digital trail to his whereabouts.” And took “enormous efforts to intercept and decipher any encrypted messages that might reveal his location or those of his associates.”
However the targeting intelligence might have been attained, Emwazi’s death would weaken ISIS confidence in its operational security. Aware of their own vulnerability, ISIS leaders will likely take even greater steps to avoid visibility. And while that limits our ability to kill them, it will strain the decision-making processes that undergird the Islamic State as a bureaucratic, theologically centered entity. This matters, because in order to expand its caliphate, ISIS leaders must remain perceivably strong. While ISIS will continue to pose significant intelligence collection challenges, yesterday’s operation proves that the coalition against it is building its capacity to detect, understand, and defeat ISIS.
#share#This success will also restore the political confidence of both American and British leaders in the utility of their intelligence special relationship, frayed by the Snowden leaks and other concerns. Supporting U.S. intelligence has become more politically controversial in the U.K. in recent years. Emwazi’s neutralization offers David Cameron a victory he can sell to the British people.
Yet the key significance of Emwazi’s death would be in the damage it would do to the Islamic State’s strategic propaganda. In October 2014, I argued that killing Emwazi was critical to challenging the Islamic State’s claims of ordained protection:
His repeated faceless appearances provide a powerful political persona. To the West, MC [Emwazi/Masked Coward] 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.”
Again, the Jihadi John mythology and its offering of purpose has attracted many thousands of recruits to the Islamic State. It has also helped the organization win fealty from other terrorist groups in Africa, Afghanistan, and beyond. Many dysfunctional young men once saw Jihadi John as their GI Joe of inspiration. Now, in the heart of the caliphate, he has reportedly been annihilated. If true, this is an opportunity for the U.S. coalition to seize the strategic initiative against ISIS.
The key significance of Emwazi’s death would be in the damage it would do to the Islamic State’s strategic propaganda.
Of course, this is ultimately a great day for moral reasons. Emwazi was the Islamic State’s version of the psychotic gimp from the movie Pulp Fiction. Any time Western blood was to be recorded, Emwazi’s masters would simply unleash the masked coward from his box and throw him a knife. But the box couldn’t hide him forever. Once the murdering poster boy of a jihadist empire, Emwazi today is, we hear, dust on a Raqqa street.
Let’s hope the same fate befalls Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi soon.