Like me and thousands of other Londoners, Mohammed Emwazi was born in the late 1980s to parents who had moved to the city from another country in search of a stable future. Emwazi’s family are Bidoon, from Iraq, but they ended up in inner West London, where Emwazi grew up speaking with a distinctive London accent: His “t” sounds vanish into glottal stops, while he says “thing” as “fing.” He got a degree from Westminster University in computer science. We would have been in the same year at school.
Emwazi’s accent became the subject of international outcry in 2014, when he appeared in the first of several videos showing him decapitating or threatening to decapitate captives of the extremist group ISIS. The new HBO documentary Unmasking Jihadi John attempts to bridge these two different versions of Mohammed Emwazi: the quiet schoolboy who was embarrassed by his bad breath, and the murderer of hostages.
America is currently reeling from a series of shootings by white men, which activists and journalists are trying to define as “domestic terrorism.” The language for such violence is beginning to change, because our loose definition of terrorism as something done to Western states by brown people is clearly not fit for the purpose.
The case of Mohammed Emwazi, aka Jihadi John, demonstrates exactly how imprecise our definitions of terrorism are. It was partly his voice that terrorized the West, his very Englishness amplifying his crimes. The violent videos of Jihadi John represented a key moment in the media representation of terrorism, relocating the origin of terror from a specific, localized place to a vast territory that we are all a part of. Emwazi compromised the whole binary idea of “us” versus “them,” Westerners versus Islamist extremists, making him the first true domestic terrorist. More have followed where Emwazi led.
On August 19, 2014, ISIS uploaded a YouTube clip of Emwazi cutting off American journalist James Foley’s head. Videos of similar violence followed, depicting Emwazi killing or standing over the bodies of Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Peter Kassig, Haruna Yukawa, Kenji Goto, and Alan Henning. In the documentary, the men who survived their internment describe nicknaming four of their most brutal guards after The Beatles, because of their English accents. The British tabloid media rapidly adopted, expanded, and spread the epithet, dubbing Emwazi “Jihadi John”—a catchy name that stuck, neatly splicing his politics with his nationality.
The majority of the documentary is devoted to Western military interviewees such as General David Petraeus, who ruefully describe their strategic errors during the Iraq War, including detaining large numbers of innocent Iraqi men alongside terrorist masterminds like Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the future founder of ISIS—then deemed a “low level” prisoner. It’s a litany of mistakes, and it will make you angry to watch.
Against this background, a more detailed, personal story unfolds, of Emwazi’s radicalization in London at the hands of older clerics who groomed an unhappy young man to take up jihad. The story is largely familiar—Emwazi was drifting after university, in search of meaning for his life, and jihad gave him a higher purpose.
But then we hear the tapes. Unmasking Jihadi John features audio clips from an interview Emwazi gave to the advocacy group Cage, complaining about his interrogations at the hands of MI5, which had him on their radar for several years before he finally left the U.K. for Kuwait, then Syria. Before he had committed any crimes at all, but after he had been in contact with surveilled individuals, MI5 detained Emwazi and offered him the opportunity to work for them as an informer. They threatened him, saying they would make his life difficult if he said no. Officials asked him why he owned camouflage clothing, for example, if he had no interest in war. He responded by pointing out that he’d packed a Rocawear sweatshirt in the same suitcase they had confiscated. Why didn’t they ask him about that?
The overall effect of these interrogations, Jihadi John shows, was to build up Emwazi’s street cred among the radical circles he was joining while alienating him from the government that was supposed to represent him. British authorities ruined two of his romantic relationships in a row, director Anthony Wonke shows, by getting in touch with Emwazi’s fiancés to alert them of his associations with extremists. One after another, his partners’ families called off their engagements—seemingly ruining his chances for a more quotidian kind of happiness.
The viewer ends up with a very informed sense of exactly why ISIS rose in the region, how Emwazi became so committed to their cause, and the significant culpability of the U.K. and U.S. authorities in engineering the whole situation. The “Jihadi John” epithet starts to sound more and more fitting, as we realize just how important Emwazi’s Englishness is to his story, how much we must remember the role of Western authorities whenever we hear the very word jihad.
Unexpected mass murder has become one of the defining forms of violent conflict in our time, but the word “terrorism” remains almost impossible to define. There is no international consensus on what is or is not terrorism, in part because circumstances tend to dictate the legitimacy of political violence and who gets to use it. For example, your political views probably inform your position on whether the Palestinians who attack Israel are terrorists. As the scholar Sami Zeidan once pointed out, the U.S. categorized Osama bin Laden as a freedom fighter when he was the enemy of the Soviet Union. When his target changed, so did his designation.
So “terrorism” can be applied to all kinds of political agendas, but has traditionally not been seen as having an inherent political agenda of its own. It is a tactic or weapon designed to provoke an emotional response—to terrify. Long after Emwazi was killed by a drone strike, his frightening legacy and the “Jihadi John” nickname endure in immortal infamy, but his actual aims are not as memorable.
It would now be difficult to deny that the mass shooters we used to call “lone wolf” murderers are using terrorist tactics that resemble those of Islamist extremists. But these two groups share something else, too: a kind of nihilist politics that lies at the bottom of the goals they have stated either in manifestos or in grainy videos. It is a politics that has now firmly taken root in the Western world, and is carrying out an assault on liberalism and the established order.
The blankness of that nihilism, its resistance to understanding, is precisely what makes such violence so frightening. The most “effective” uses of terror are those that seem empty of meaning. As the scholar Saul Newman has observed, nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the September 11, 2001 attacks, which meant that its immediate effect “was pure terror, as we were confronted with a violence characterized by its very meaninglessness and absence of content—a violence without purpose or goal.”
So we may fairly call Jihadi John or the El Paso shooter a “domestic” terrorist, but in another sense the sobriquet doesn’t quite work, because we are not dealing with the type of violence that has two sides. When Mohammed Emwazi put a knife to the throat of an English hostage, speaking in an English accent, we saw a species of violent political act that has since spread throughout the disaffected regions of our own culture—specifically the alienated young men whom Emwazi so resembled when he was a schoolboy in London.
We do not yet have sufficient language to describe such men, in law, in journalism, or in politics. We need a new terminology that accurately describes the stateless realm where Mohammed Emwazi and Patrick Crusius (and Dylann Roof and a hundred others) reside. Words like “domestic” and “foreign” are incommensurate with the way terrorism works now. There is no us versus them—only us.