February 27, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Jihadi John and Terror’s Celebrity Factor

• The intense interest in the apparent identification of Islamic State executioner “Jihadi John” as a Kuwaiti-born Londoner named Mohammed Emwazi demonstrates the power of terror celebrity

• Terrorist groups crave the attention and fear that an immediately recognizable figure of menace can provide; it’s akin to exceptionally effective branding

• Emwazi is perfect for the Islamic State’s need to generate perpetual interest and buzz among disturbed people looking for a similar kind of infamy; furthermore, he generates understandable but disproportionate fear among the English-speaking audience

• Given its large numbers of foreign fighters, the Islamic State likely has at least a few more potential Jihadi Johns, of multiple backgrounds, waiting for the spotlight to shine on them while the group’s true leadership avoids the spotlight.


As much as its black flag, the Islamic State is associated, at least in the West, with a singular figure of masked menace. The sadistic executioner of hostages, dubbed “Jihadi John,” has become what every terrorist group craves: a terror celebrity who generates as much interest as he does fear. The apparent identification of Jihadi John as Mohammed Emwazi has created intense interest because of the notoriety generated by this brutal pseudonym. Ripping away the moniker Jihadi John and calling him by his real name will likely lessen his mystique but will increase global interest in his next appearance.

The image of Emwazi, all-in-black against the backdrop of stark landscapes, has become horribly iconic, with his words, while important, mattering less than his visage and celebrity. Most people have mercifully not watched his videos but the still images of him linger just as much. The larger-than-life persona of the masked individual calmly taunting global powers can create the erroneous impression of a larger-than-life movement—an impression that leads to fear-based policies and reactions that could play into the Islamic State’s need for just that. It’s why the Islamic State put him in front of the camera.

Adding to the power of the visible celebrity is the nom de terreur—in this case, “Jihadi John.” It would be a mistake to underestimate the effect of a catchy name juxtaposed upon a horrific individual in terms of perceived power and presence. Earlier examples of this lethal celebrity include “the Son of Sam,” “the Unabomber,” and the “the Night Stalker.” Yet in those cases, the public only had the stage names to fear, as it was only after their arrests or just prior to that their faces and names became known. Furthermore, these criminals never become the visual representative of an ideology or group, something Jihadi John has done over the past six months. Jihadi John has become, in spite of all the other violent imagery produced by Islamic State media, the masked face of terror.

There have been far too many videotaped murders of hostages by masked members of groups such as al-Qaeda and the precursor group to the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). However, the Jihadi John murders are different. A masked Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was filmed murdering journalist Daniel Pearl in 2001; AQI leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi was filmed murdering several hostages in 2004. But those two were more interested in conveying a message than being the message. Jihadi John, with his British accent and theatrical poses, was as much a message to the Western audience as the murders themselves.

It remains to be seen how the group reacts to the identification of Emwazi; will he remain masked or will he remove it? These are more than superficial questions. More so than any other terrorist group, the Islamic State depends on imagery and its brand (though dysfunctional governments and armed chaos certainly help their cause more). The celebrity terror factor is important for the group as it faces increasing military pressure and its true leadership does all it can to avoid the spotlight. It needs now more than ever to put a terrorizing figure as the face of its motto “remaining and expanding.”


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