How ISIS leads you into the public debate trap

Since ISIS executioner “Jihadi John” was unmasked, he has grabbed the headlines and his story occupies the public debate

Dr. Halla Diyab

Published: Updated:

Since ISIS executioner “Jihadi John” was unmasked, he has grabbed the headlines and his story occupies the public debate with an attempt to understand the man behind the mask who beheaded a number of captives. There is a fear that the constant decoding of the reasons which have taken him and others to the extremist path could act as a form of justification for their brutality.

We cannot deny the public’s right to unveil the identity of ISIS perpetrators, mainly because ISIS’s crimes are not narrated after the fact but rather performed publically, witnessed by people, then re-watched, and posted in public spheres. But how safe is it to push these perpetrators’ personal stories to the core of public deliberation?

By attempting to ascertain the motivations of Jihadi John, whether he was a “cold loner who set himself apart from others” or a man who expresses remorse for the “problems and trouble the revelation of his identity has caused” to his family, or one who used to be a shy teenager “continually moving his stance to avoid the camera’s gaze,” there is a danger of unintentional humanizing of a perpetrator who committed very dehumanized acts.

It is naïve to think that by covering his face, Jihadi John is dealing with identity crisis caused by the community, or an unvisited childhood calamity. For ISIS, masking is not an individualistic choice, but rather a collectivist/collective manifestation of their ideology and the physical representation of their attempt to dehumanize their victims and distance themselves from their acts. Jihadi John could have appeared with full facial mask that could cover his eyes, or he could even have appeared muted, something which would make it difficult or even impossible to identify him. However, by choosing a British man to execute British and Western men, and address the world in a deep Estuary English accent, ISIS deliberately created public psychological impact.

Personifying the ideology

Jihadi John and other extremists are ISIS’s tools to personify the ideology that they spearheaded. It is all part of an attempt to influence public perceptions. ISIS allowed for visual clues that helped in thrusting Jihadist John from being an unidentified visual monster into a topic of public discussion that unveiled his history, his childhood, his roots, his inspirations, and his challenges - a process which can gradually humanize him. The tactful strategy of ISIS is to create moral conflict: Is Jihadi John a victim or a perpetrator?

It is crucial to keep Jihadi John’s victims alive and capture their memories for the public

Dr. Halla Diyab

Engaging the public with the rhetoric of moral conflict or isolation-based violence is ISIS’s strategy to justify its barbaric actions and brutality. The counter narrative is to be resilient to ISIS’s public rhetoric, and encourage “calling things by their proper names;” Jihadi John and those who choose to join ISIS are terrorists by choice, they act on their extremist views. Jihadi John is not a loner, nor a shy teenager, or a son who brought shame to his family, but rather he is the killer of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, Peter Kassig, Syrian soldiers, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto Jogo.

Jihadi John has killed fathers, brothers, husbands, friends and family members by choice and by his free will. There is no reason for his barbaric crimes apart from his radical extremism which helped him rationalize and dehumanize his victims. Publically, we witnessed how gradually Jihadi John has grown more comfortable in beheading and slaughtering his victims, with time he has become more confident, more relaxed and less anxious. For Jihadi John, beheadings have become an addiction that needs to be fed. The territorial rise of ISIS facilitates a space and an opportunity for extremists like Jihadi John to physicalize their violence and move their radicalism from the mental/ideological state into a physical one manifested through the act of killing and beheading.

It is crucial to keep Jihadi John’s victims alive and capture their living memories for the public, for their families, friends and beloved ones; something which ISIS does not want. ISIS wants the public to only remember Jihadi John’s victims as subjects of their brutality and atrocities: being mutilated, chopped and fragmented. The public should cherish the victims’ courage, life and achievements in an attempt for the resurgence of their memories to be the public focus so their voice will not be lost under the iron fist of ISIS’s brutality. Alluding to the victims as alive will counter the deviant ideology until ISIS and its Jihadi Johns are brought to justice and punished for their crimes against humanity.


Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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