J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Unmasking Jihadi John


With all respects to the movie Yesterday, the world would have been a much better place without these certain Beatles—namely the quartet of Daesh terrorists dubbed “The Beatles” by their Western hostages, because of their British accents. By far, the most notorious was the one referred to as “Jihadi John” in the media, because he is the one who committed the atrocities in the infamous beheading videos. There is plenty of biographical detail, but all the really difficult questions are skirted in Anthony Wonke’s Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist, which premieres this Wednesday on HBO.

Mohammed Emwazi was born in Kuwait, but his family soon immigrated to London to escape tribal oppression. During his early school days, he was a shy Manchester United fan, but he turned more delinquent in his teen years. Inevitably, radical Islam offered a worldview that excused him of all responsibility, making him the poor victim.

Emwazi’s terrorist sympathies were no secret to the British authorities. In fact, they intercepted him during his first attempt to wage jihad in Iraq. Much is made of this episode, during which time a British intelligence officer tried to turn him into an asset. Wonke and screenwriter Richard Kerbaj are determined to frame this as a tipping point, pushing him into radicalism, but this seems to rather overstate matters, since he was already determined to commit acts of terrorism against his former country.

Regardless, he would indeed enlist with Daesh (Wonke and Kerbaj refer to it by the terrorists’ preferred term, ISIS), just as it was emerging as the successor to Al-Qaeda among the hearts and minds of violent Islamists. Eventually, he and three other British born terrorist-traitors took a leading role holding and eventually executing a group of Western hostages, including James Foley.

As we know from the horrific footage, it was Emwazi who slit their throats on camera. Clearly, he was chosen for the job precisely because of his London accent. It did indeed create a firestorm, but Wonke and Kerbaj try to present it purely in terms of sensationalistic journalism and the disbelief that one of our Britain’s own could turn on his own country.

They completely ignore the wider point about what the Emwazi case says about radical Islam. He was not oppressed by Israel or brutalized in a refugee camp. He didn’t even suffer from long bouts of unemployment. Instead, his history suggests there is something intrinsically violent and anti-social in his Islamist world view. Right, Wonke and Kerbaj would rather have us move along, wanting us to think there is nothing to see here.

There is still some informative dot-connecting with respects to Daesh’s operations, but that is nuts and bolts stuff, rather than deep insights. Frankly, the film almost could pass for an effort to forestall such in-depth analysis, despite the participation of experts, including the unexpected presence of Gen. David Patraeus. Somewhat disappointing, Unmasking Jihadi John need not be considered required viewing when it premieres Wednesday (7/31) on HBO.

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