Let Not Jihadi John Distract Us From the Real Evil

04/12/2015 09:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015

2015-04-13-1428887538-4885238-JihadiJohn.jpeg

Jihadi John is the new international Bogey-Man. He gets plenty of media coverage these days, and has become a lightning rod of moral outrage in the West. But the media narrative around this new Evil Incarnate comes with a huge price tag: it obscures much more significant realities.

Jihadi John is not particularly remarkable. He has committed vile, inhuman murders, but so have most other ISIS recruits. He broadly fits the profile of almost all the ISIS jihadists: not particularly religious, with a history of petty crime, sexually frustrated, experience of prison, angry at society at large - the loser looking for meaning in an otherwise unpromising life. If anything, Jihadi John is but a depressing example of the banality of evil.

As grotesque a figure as he is, we should put his actions into context: he is but the executioner of ISIS's routine shock strategy. After capturing any area, they always bring a dozen or so people in the main square, execute them on some spurious grounds and hang their bodies for everyone to see as a representation of their new "order". It is a simple but effective terror technique which allows them to hold control over population areas through fear and intimidation.

Similarly, they will make super glossy videos showing beheadings, burning people or throwing them off building. Or they will behead Western hostages, goading the Western media into adopting the ISIS narrative of a war of civilisations between the West and Islam - when in fact the war is between common human decency, and a depraved gang of thugs. Jihadi John is but the most visible face of the ISIS propaganda effort to intimidate its local opponents, goad the West, and recruit impressionable young men.

There is nothing new in any of this. This has been going on in war since the beginning of time. If anything is different it is at most that such brutality is probably the essential part of the ideology that sustains ISIS and of its success to date. One analyst estimated they have killed about 2000 people in this fashion.

Surely an unforgivable atrocity. But not enough information to get a true understanding of the relationship between an ideology of brutality and actual brutality on the ground. Take by comparison Bashar al-Assad. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, he has adopted the opposite strategy. He keeps all his killing very quiet, and denies it even occurs whenever possible. But his forces have killed over 200,000 civilians including tens of thousands of children in the most gruesome manner. He has been using barrel bombs, which are cluster munitions and thus illegal under international conventions, on civilian areas, killing and maiming on a grand scale. Then there is the use of illegal chemical weapons on civilians. And every kind of wanton extra-judicial murder, even reported cases of children tortured to death in front of their parents according to a UN report.

This is the problem of Jihadi John. Singular acts of extreme brutality, especially if we can attach a face to them, make for very compelling news items in our 24-hour news-media cycle. But such stories conceal at least as much as they reveal.

If you want a truly newsworthy revelation, here is one: ISIS and the Assad forces have to date not been engaged in any direct conflict with each other. Both parties are avoiding it overtly. Assad needs ISIS to rebrand himself in the public eye as the last hope to defeat ISIS. He wants to be to be embraced by the international community as the man who will save the region from the terror of ISIS - all the while committing atrocities on a scale that puts ISIS to shame. Meanwhile, ISIS needs Assad as a primary recruiting tool. It is his very atrocities that have provided the initial claim of legitimate Jihad to the group, as defenders of Sunnis against Shia Alawite oppression, and this remains one of the group's stated raison d'etre. The apparently mindless brutality of Jihadi John is a scandal. But it is by no means the scandal. And out of context, it takes our attention away from the real evil in the Levant.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is an International Security Lecturer at the University of Chicago and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College