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'Jihadi John' a reminder that extremism comes in all shapes and sizes

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'Jihadi John' a reminder that extremism comes in all shapes and sizes

  • A screengrab from an Islamic State propaganda video showing 'Jihadi John'.
    GlobalpostA screengrab from an Islamic State propaganda video showing 'Jihadi John'.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — “When millions of people — especially youth — are impoverished and have no hope for the future, when corruption inflicts daily humiliations on people, when there are no outlets by which people can express their concerns, resentments fester. The risk of instability and extremism grow. Where young people have no education, they are more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and radical ideas, because it's not tested against anything else, they’ve got nothing to weigh.”

Those were Barack Obama's remarks at the closing of an international summit on countering extremism a little over a week ago, the main aim of which was to figure out how to tackle the Islamic State (IS).

As the militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL has continued to attract new members from across the world, an image of the type of person who would leave their life behind and travel to Syria or Iraq to join them has become commonplace. That person is a loner — an impoverished, isolated figure with nothing to lose.

The link between poverty and terrorism is one frequently made by policymakers (more so than academics). Obama made the same case years earlier, saying in 2012: “Extremely poor societies…provide optimal breeding grounds for disease, terrorism and conflict.” Less than a year after the 9/11 attacks in New York, George W. Bush spoke of the need to “fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.”

But what of the many terrorists and associated sympathizers who do not fit that profile? Enter "Jihadi John," an IS member who has become something akin to a public face for the group (an irony, given that his face is always covered).


A man called Jihadi John, whose nickname was given to him by former captives, has appeared in a number of videos in which he appears to execute Western hostages held by the group — among them American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the British aid worker David Haines. 

On Thursday, he was unmasked by the Washington Post as Mohammed Emwazi, a British man described by friends and relatives as “from a well-to-do family who grew up in West London and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming.”

The Washington Post revealed that Emwazi had complained of harassment by UK security services, a point which his friend believes started his path to radicalization.

Emwazi’s reported route to extremism is likely to divide opinion in the coming weeks, and beyond. The likely dividing lines were neatly expressed by Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army officer and writer on the Middle East, in the hours after Emwazi's name was revealed. 

"Mohammed Emwazi as Rorshach test: Did the state radicalize him? Or did the state correctly ID a radical?" he wrote on Twitter.

What many find surprising about Emwazi’s background is that he was well-educated, and came from wealth. 

“The world now contemplates how a college educated Londoner could behead Westerners with such remorselessness,” wrote New York Times political correspondent Michael Barbaro.

But should that be the most jarring detail about Emwazi’s life?

The truth is that terrorists come in all shapes and sizes, and this has been true for some time. Notable examples include Osama bin Laden, the former Al Qaeda leader, who came from a family of billionaires. Anwar al-Awlaki, the group's leader in the Arabian Peninsula until his death, was studying for a PhD at George Washington University in the U.S. when he left to join the fight.

The Economist, reviewing several books on the causes of radicalism, noted in a 2010 article that “the ranks of high-profile terrorism suspects also boast plenty of middle-class, well-educated people.”

It lists the examples: “The would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shehzad, boasts an MBA and is the son of a senior Pakistani air-force officer. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who stands accused of lighting a makeshift bomb on a transatlantic flight in the so-called 'underwear plot,' had a degree from University College, London, and is the son of a rich Nigerian banker. The suspected suicide-bomber in this week's attacks in Stockholm had a degree from a British university.”

Engineers, doctors, professionals

That same is true today. Since it grew out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war and the occupation of Iraq, IS has been very effective in attracting well-off and well-educated recruits.

Among the early volunteers, joining around the same time as Emwazi, was Canadian citizen Andre Poulin. Speaking about his motivation for joining in an IS propaganda video, he said: “Before I come here to Syria, I had money, I had a family, I had good friends. It wasn’t like I was some anarchist or somebody who just wants to destroy the world and kill everybody."

He went on, issuing a call for more volunteers: “We need the engineers, we need doctors, we need professionals. Every person can contribute something to the Islamic State.”

And they have come. Doctors like Othman Abdelkayan and Mirza Tariq Ali have joined or tried to join IS. Engineers like Areeb Majeed, too.

A report released late last year by King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) found that of nearly two dozen British citizens killed fighting in Syria, many “appear to have had well-paying jobs such as driving an HGV for the Highways Agency, or working for north London estate agents, and at least five of those in ICSR’s database were enrolled in, or had completed, higher education.”

Then there is the fact that most foreign IS militants come from Tunisia — the most educated and cosmopolitan country in the Arab world. Tunisian officials estimate that as many as 2,400 citizens have gone to join the group

There are many indicators, and some strong trends — but there is no one route to radicalization.

This is something that the Islamic State knows full well, according to John Horgan, a psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies.

Speaking to the International Business Times last year, he summarized the group’s appeal to different sections of society:

“It is an equal opportunity organization. It has everything from the sadistic psychopath to the humanitarian to the idealistic driven.” 

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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