Who was Jihadi John?
He was the black-clad terrorist who haunted the news in 2014 and 2015. He was the faceless man with the London accent who was frequently filmed standing in the desert, taunting Barack Obama and David Cameron before then beheading a hostage. In total, Jihadi John was filmed either beheading or directing others to behead 29 hostages. Among his victims were American journalist James Foley and British aid worker David Haines.
Up until he was apparently blown up by a drone strike in 2015, Jihadi John was, for many of us in the West, the best-known member of ISIS. When we heard the word “ISIS,” he was the one we pictured. Because his face was always covered, his identity was unknown. All we knew about him was that he spoke perfect English with a British accent. He was like a creature sprung from a nightmare, a monster who materialized out of nowhere and taunted us for our inability to defeat him. There was much speculation about who Jihadi John was. Even after we found out that he was probably a Kuwait-born British citizen named Mohammed Emwazi, we still wondered how this man came to be standing in the desert, being filmed as he committed terrible crimes.
The new HBO documentary, Unmasking Jihadi John, is an investigation into the origins of terrorism. The film attempts to reconstruct Emwazi’s early life as an outsider in the UK. His teachers describe him as being quiet and somewhat forgettable. Video from that period shows a skinny and awkward-looking teenager, one who covered his mouth whenever he spoke because he had once been taunted for having bad breath. When he was ten, he wrote that he wanted to be a soccer player. A few years later, he was caught on video, smiling while sitting in a computer lab. And then, just a few years after that, he was in Syria, committing horrific acts of evil. And make no mistake about it — the Emwazi who we see waving a knife while condemning the West is evil. Evil comes in many disguises and will often try to justify itself by hijacking a religion or an ideology. But in the end, evil is evil.
Because Emwazi was vaporized in 2015, he’s not around to explain just what exactly led him to join ISIS. The film speculates that Emwazi initially joined because he was looking for both a surrogate family and a place where he actually belonged. The documentary contains clips from several ISIS propaganda videos and what’s interesting is that the images that ISIS used — children playing in the streets, men working together to rebuild a city, and friends hugging each other — are many of the same images that one would expect to find in western advertising. They’re seductive images, ones that offer up a promise of a better life as long as you follow orders and don’t question authority. They were exactly the type of images designed to appeal to someone like Emwazi (and countless others), who had a need to feel as if they belonged to something bigger than themselves.
If the first half of the documentary focuses on Emwazi and the founding of ISIS, the second half deals with the aftermath of Emwazi’s actions. Interviews, with the hostages who survived and the families of those who did not, drive home the pain that was caused by the actions of ISIS as a whole and Emwazi in specific. It’s in those interviews that we are reminded that Emwazi’s evil cannot be excused by a turbulent childhood or misplaced idealism. Towards the end of the documentary, the man who controlled the drone that fired the missile that ended Emwazi’s life is interviewed. When we watch the grainy and coldly impersonal footage of Emwazi’s car blowing up, we feel no sympathy for the man who was called Jihadi John. As to whether or not there’s joy to be found there, well, that’s up to the viewer to decide for themselves.
It’s a compelling documentary but it’s also frustrating, if just because it poses a question that may be impossible to answer. Why does evil exist? How can one go from being a normal, if awkward, teenager to being a savage murderer? Like the rest of us, the documentary can only wonder why.