Sick as this may sound, the super-slick HD depiction of a pseudo-ninja murdering American journalist James Foley is, not least, a recruiting video. In the warped world of new-generation jihadists—especially those coming out of Western cities—hacking off heads has become a status symbol.
That’s why an Australian lunatic among the ISIS forces posted a picture a couple of weeks ago of his 7-year-old posing the way other little boys do with a largemouth bass, but this kid held up a severed head. The boy’s expression says, “Look, Daddy, aren’t you proud?”Now we learn that a British rapper from West London may be the tough-talking, Obama-menacing, America-threatening man with the little knife who put it to Foley’s throat in the infamous video just before the image cut to black….Fade in to show Foley’s decapitated body, the head resting on top of the prone corpse.The image in the video is horrible, but not nearly so horrible—and unwatchable—as other jihadist snuff films circulating on the web for many years that show the entire gruesome process of decapitation. This one, by terrorist standards, was rated R.Personally, I doubt that the suspect rapper—Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, aka Lyricist Jinn, aka L Jinny—is the masked headsman, precisely because he is masked. Why, having advertised his savagery only days ago with a social media post showing him holding a human head, would he now conceal his identity? (One possible answer: the jealousy of his comrades, who don’t want him to get too big a rep.)
There are at least two other British suspects who might have been “Jihadi John,” as the British press has christened Foley’s killer. But the press has focused on Abdel Bary, as the press is wont to do, because there’s a lot of material about him on the web already.Abdel Bary has been tweeting his version of the war in Syria for months. And in that sense, he’s an interesting and instructive example of the would-be knights of Islam, the medieval millennials, who’ve flocked to the black banners of the so-called Caliphate, aka Islamic State, aka ISIS, aka ISIL, aka asses.
The one relatively unique attribute of Abdel Bary is that his father, Adel Abdel Bary, aka Adel Mohammed Abdel Magid Abdel Bari, was a longtime associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri, currently the leader of al Qaeda. I knew the old man in the late 1990s, when I was trying to set up an interview with Zawahiri in Afghanistan and Abdel Bary was the go-to guy in London, or “Londonistan,” as we called it, who could make that happen.
But in 1998, in the wake of al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the elder Abdel Bary was arrested (with my business card in his pocket, he told me), released, then re-arrested in 1999. His case became a cause célèbre for some in the British press, and The Guardian gave prominent play to the story of his wife, Ragaa, telling of “the prison visits, the battles with bureaucracy and the struggles to raise a family under extraordinary pressures.” Finally, in 2012, Abdel Bary was extradited and is now serving time in an American prison.So, the younger Abdel Bary’s upbringing may have given him a special grudge, and also a taste for the spotlight. Clearly this young man, now 23, thought he might have a shot at stardom in music videos. Some of his recordings reportedly were picked up on BBC Radio 1. But hip-hop recognition apparently wasn’t enough, so last year he joined the jihad in Syria.
A lot of the literature about Islamic extremists and terrorism focuses on what is or is not taught in the Qur’an. But the densely layered messages in the holy texts of Islam have very little to do with the mindset of wannabe holy warriors, many of whom are more or less self-taught. Two who recently traveled from Birmingham, U.K., to Syria only to be arrested on their return reportedly learned about their faith by ordering Islam for Dummies on Amazon.
The aspiring jihadis from Europe, Australia, and the United States have in common with almost all terrorists of any nationalist, religious, or ideological stripe three basic attributes: testosterone (they are almost always young men); narrative (they may not have been oppressed themselves, but they identify strongly with people who are downtrodden and see their role as one of protector—the knight in shining armor); and theater (they want to create a spectacle the world will remember). This works out to a neat formula—TNT—which, even if it’s a little cute, holds up well under examination.
Anthropologist Scott Atran, who is frequently consulted by the U.S. government, has long argued that a jihadist’s motivations cannot be fit within a purely rational framework of costs and benefits, nor can they be understood as utterly irrational. Instead they work within the context of what they come to see as “sacred values,” which may be religious or may have to do more with honor and respect and, perhaps, what the 18th century political theorist Edmund Burke called “the sublime”: that “quest for greatness, glory, eternal meaning in an inherently chaotic world,” as Atran says.
“It seems like volunteers for ISIS are surfing for the sublime,” Atran wrote to me on Sunday. They are escaping “the jaded, tired world of democratic liberalism, especially on the margins where Europe’s immigrants mostly live.” As Atran notes, “many are just ‘vacationers’ for Jihad, going to Syria over school breaks or holidays for the thrill of adventure and a semblance of glory, and returning to tolerably easy but somewhat soulless lives in the West, driving taxis, cooking in fast food joints, going to computer classes, or whatever. But the successes of ISIS are drawing in greater commitments now. The beheadings are doing what the images of the collapsing towers did for al Qaeda, turning terror into a display of triumph…In Burke’s sense, a display of the sublime.”
Of course, compared to today’s commonly accepted sense of the word “sublime,” these guys are almost as ridiculous as they are horrifying.
Thus Abdel Majed Abdel Bary broadcast his complaint on Twitter when he had a nasty run-in with Free Syrian Army rebels in March this year. Under the name Terrorist with the handle @ItsLJinny, he told his followers: “Me & Abu Hussein al britani [also reportedly a suspect in the Foley case] got kidnapped/tortured by FSA/IF scum they stole our 4 ak’s [assault rifles] and a 7mm [pistol], my vechile [vehicle] & our phones and cash.” The tweet was picked up almost instantly on the The Daily Mail’s website.Then, this month, @ItsLJinny reportedly tweeted a picture of himself holding a man’s severed head. The caption read: “Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.”
One wonders why Abdel Bary’s fellow jihadis would trust such a fool. The answer can only be that they are very much like him.
Maybe this hip-hop headsman really is the man in black with the little knife in the film. But whoever that guy was, he will never be able to match the dignity of his victim. James Foley maintained extraordinary composure and showed singular bravery even as he mouthed the cheap, scripted dialogue the terrorists had written for him. Wannabe jihadists probably won’t see that, but the rest of us certainly do.