The Hunt for ISIS, the Hunt for Jihadi John

ISIS convoy

Image courtesy of Reuters

The Hunt for ISIS, the Hunt for Jihadi John
| published September 14, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

With the death of British aid worker David Haines, ISIS has made it clear that it regards citizens of countries allied with the United States as sharing the same responsibility and suffering the same potential fate as the thousands of others the group has murdered during its five-months-long reign of terror in the Middle East. Early on Sunday, Islamic State militants released a video showing what appeared to be David Cawthorne Haines, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling beside a hooded extremist holding a knife.

In the video, a black-clad man with a British accent warns England that its alliance with the U.S. will “accelerate your destruction.” After a short speech in which the extremist rails against both Britain and the U.S., Haines is apparently beheaded.

The 44-year-old Haines, who was educated in Scotland and the U.K., was kidnapped in 2013 in Syria while working with the non-profit group Nonviolent Peaceforce, a Brussels, Belgium-based charitable and humanitarian organization, and for the Paris-based Agency for Technical Cooperation & Development. Haines role with those groups was as a peace facilitator—which the organization describes as an unarmed civilian who is sent in to facilitate cease-fires and humanitarian truces in combat zones and in regions of conflict. Haines had been working in northern Syria when he was kidnapped last year. His death was intended as retribution against the U.K. for its alignment with the U.S. in what has now become something of an international war, though it remains unclear which country’s combatants will engage ISIS on the ground.

In the video, the black-clad man stresses that his message is a direct one, aimed at British Prime Minister David Cameron. “If you, Mr. Cameron, persist in fighting the Islamic State then you, like your master Obama, will have the blood of your people on your hands.” Later in the video the man threatens to kill yet another hostage.

The Haines video is the latest horrific salvo in a grim war of images. It has also set in motion a manhunt the likes of which the world has not seen since the death of Osama bin Laden.

In the hours and days after the first such video was released in August, a video which showed the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley, much of the world expressed shock and horror. That video and its gruesome content—not to mention the direct threat which its masked spokesman made to the United States—may have been the catalysts which drove the Pentagon, the White House, and President Barack Obama into cohesive action against the radical Islamic terror organization.

Indeed, events moved swiftly within the following weeks—the President morphing reluctantly from a troubling position of “we have no strategy,” which inspired the ire even of many liberals, to a new mindset, expressed on the eve of the anniversary of September 11, that the U.S. is in fact at war with ISIS. Over the last 72 hours or so, the language of the U.S. role has been the subject of intense debate and metamorphosis, with Secretary of State John Kerry declaring broadly that “we are not engaged in war,” but with the Pentagon and the White House clearly defining the current U.S. policy toward ISIS as “war.” No matter—it sometimes takes the complex machinery of government some time to get its talking points in order.

Military and foreign policy analysts are in agreement that the President’s now-publicly stated-policy of taking on ISIS head-on makes sense, except that there is no clarity of exactly what role the United States will play beyond what it is doing now—bombing specific targets inside Iraq, using unarmed and armed drones over ISIS-controlled areas, and sharing critical intelligence with anti-ISIS forces on the ground, like the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. The question of how and where the U.S. will strike inside Syria remains unanswered (though last week Syrian President Bashir al-Assad indicated through his diplomatic channels that he welcomes U.S. air intervention). There is also the possibility that the U.S. will give direct support to opposition groups in Syria, and to the so-called “Free Syrian Army,” those small units which had previously disavowed their support of Assad.

It’s a treacherous, complicated environment, fraught with the unavoidable morality-check that in some way, shape, or form, the U.S. will be now aiding the regime of the much-loathed Assad—a conundrum for an American president who had promised to extract the United States from two costly wars, and keep the country out of any new conflicts.

Still, on the 13th Anniversary of 9/11, the United States was again on a war footing, of sorts. Indeed, all the previous months and weeks of ambiguity and caution seemed to be at an end. Foley’s beheading set this slow machinery into motion.

But one thing that did evolve quickly after Foley’s murder was the belief by U.S. and British intelligence and law enforcement that the masked, hooded man with the London accent could be identified, and brought to justice. Almost immediately, British intelligence operatives went to work to try to crack the code in what little visual and audio information they had: the eyes which shown from inside that dark hood, the left-handed use of the knife, the positioning of the gun in that holster at his side, the posture and stance, that featureless, bleak landscape, and the voice—an accent revealing that the killer very likely came from an area of London known for its complex patchwork of ethnicities and cultures. The accent, we were told from the start, is something called Multicultural London.

In the United States and in Britain, entire teams went to work attempting to identify that killer, and now—authorities in both countries say that the identity of that knife-wielding militant may be within their grasp.

The narrative of that killer has morphed only slightly over the last two weeks. There were a few erroneous theories that the man’s accent may have indicated a brief residence in Liverpool, but this notion was quickly dropped as experts narrowed the accent to London, then, possibly to specific neighborhoods within London. There was also a flurry of activity when some analysts considered the possibility that the man who did the talking and the acting—right up to the moment in which he moved the knife to Foley’s throat—may not have been the man who did the actual cutting. Some thought the posture and build of the man in those last frames of video was measurably different. If true, it would indicate that the English-speaker was used only for the first part of the video, and was replaced by a somewhat more muscular, stronger man who beheaded Foley as the journalist knelt in the sand. After all, why else would there be that abrupt hard cut in the video?

But little more has merged from this separate theory, and the notion of two cloaked killers has now taken the back seat again to the belief that the English-speaking man did in fact commit the atrocity with that knife in his left hand. There were also rumors that British intelligence experts thought that the knife-wielding man may be a British musician and rapper known to have cultivated a strong interest in extremist views and anti-western militancy. But like the theory of the second killer, little more has been said about this possibility.

The man in that black covering and wearing that black mask is apparently known as “Jihadi John” to his fellow militants within ISIS. Intelligence experts have harvested data indicating the Jihadi John works alongside several other British citizens now fighting among a specific ISIS unit in Syria. In fact, British law enforcement suggests that there may be as many as 500 Brits now fighting with ISIS across the vast stretch of territory now controlled by the extremist army, and many of those travelled by conventional means into Turkey, then walked into Syria by crossing a porous border identified in some cases only by a low chain-link fence. Jihadi John may be embedded in a small claque of other militant, radical Brits—including, some analysts believe, the videographer—unfortunately known among ISIS units as “the Beatles” (about as awful an insult to the Fab Four as one could imagine).

But that masked man’s criminal participation in the gruesome video has been no source of amusement to law enforcement officials in the U.S. or the U.K.

Foley’s death was followed about a week later by the beheading of a second American journalist, Stephen Sotloff, a reporter who worked at various times for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Affairs, and Time magazine. Most experts immediately said that the hooded man in the video of Sotloff’s murder was very likely the same man seen in the earlier video, though law enforcement officials in the U.S. and government intelligence experts in Britain have been cautious about confirming that both masked men are in fact the same person. And among reporters and analysts who have examined the video which shows the death of David Haines, there is initial but informal agreement that the voice is, again, likely the same man.

In the meantime, CNN has reported that it spoke to sources in U.S. law enforcement and U.S. intelligence about the identity of James Foley’s killer, and those sources indicated that law enforcement was closing-in on the identity of the masked man—a now infamous killer believed to be working among top ISIS units inside northern Syria.

The stakes are high for both the U.K. and the United States. Foley and Sotloff were American citizens, and civilians—not soldiers. For that reason U.S. law enforcement must follow through on its own investigative priorities. Since the masked man in both videos has an accent almost certainly unique to certain areas of London, and since numerous British citizens have been known to have travelled out of the U.K. and into Turkey, Syria or Iraq to join radical groups, the U.K. is under pressure to identify the killer, or killers, in both videos.  Haines' death now heightens this pressure.

As it turns out, the world would learn later, the United States military executed a rescue mission to free Foley, Sotloff, Haines, and others from ISIS hands this past spring. The secret mission, which may have involved more forces than those used to kill Bin Laden in Pakistan, failed only because of faulty intelligence: ISIS apparently moved the kidnap victims from the location where U.S. analysts believed they were being held. The Pentagon reported that one U.S. soldier was badly injured, and that at least two ISIS fighters were killed in the brief firefight which took place in the wee hours of the morning.

Though the kidnapped Americans were in fact at the targeted location in the weeks and days prior to the assault, up-to-the-minute drone and satellite data was not ordered or available in the hours leading up to the start of the raid. U.S. Special Forces and Navy Seals, transported in stealth helicopters at low altitudes, were in and out of Syria without detection by Syrian air defense systems (or, as some military analysts have theorized, because Syrian air defense officers, in conference with Damascus, chose to look the other way during the assault).

Now, with the deaths of Sotloff and Foley, the United States finds itself back in a state-of-war, at least in the sense that there is a battle to be waged against a specific army. Though the President has made it clear on numerous occasions that he does not intend to place U.S. personnel on the ground in forward positions against ISIS, the stakes continue to rise in Iraq. This past week, the Pentagon sent an additional 250 military personnel into Iraq—bringing the total number of Americans in country to roughly 1500.

ISIS, which is also sometimes referred to as ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), formed out of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq and from elements of radical militant groups in northern Syria—some of whom were fighting against the regime of Assad. Syria’s long and bloody civil war spawned a lawless, chaotic region in Syria which stretched all the way to the border with Turkey, and southeastward toward the intersection of the borders of Iraq and Jordan. Earlier in 2014, ISIS sprang into action blitzkrieg-style, sweeping into northern Iraq, capturing cities and towns along the way and quickly imposing an extremist form of Islamic law on all citizens. In the face of ISIS’s rapid advance, the Iraqi army collapsed almost completely—in many cases abandoning hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military hardware. Heavily-armed, ISIS pushed to within about 40 miles of Baghdad before it advance was halted.

Its reign of terror in those areas under its control has been extreme. Thousands have been summarily shot and thousands more beheaded by ISIS militants. Iraqi soldiers, local police, and security force personnel with links to Baghdad have been killed in mass executions. ISIS militants have raped women and forced them into captivity, extorted merchants and shopkeepers, closed schools, issued bans on women being outside of homes, burned and bombed Shiite mosques, looted banks, and even imposed laws against reading and literacy. Violators of these edicts face amputation, torture, or death by crucifixion. ISIS has sought to exterminate religious minorities, killing thousands of Yezidis and thousands of Kurdish citizens in northern Iraq, including children. The campaign of terror against Yezidis forced tens of thousands to flee from scores of towns and villages, and those thousands sought refuge on Mount Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq near the border with Syria.

The race to identify the hooded man in the ISIS video has now taken on a resonance and a singularity similar to the hunt for bin Laden in the aught years, and in the United Kingdom that masked man’s participation in the murders has stirred anger and outrage. Now, with the death of Haines under circumstances almost identical to the first two videos, military and intelligence experts in Britain are combing through every digital detail of all three videos in the hope of perhaps isolating the exact location where Haines' murder took place.

David Cameron called an emergency meeting of his top military, law enforcement and intelligence people early on Sunday to commence an immediate program of action against ISIS. Though there had been a few hours of caution after the initial release of the video, British officials now conclude that the images do show the murder of David Haines—a video apparently shot in the same dry, arid landscape of northern Syria against pastel blue skies and on top of chalky beige and yellow sands. And though most intelligence analysts—working feverishly on the tiniest details of all three videos—won’t say much, some officials have allowed that they are very close to identifying the location where the murders took place.

Haines was among the other western hostages held when U.S. Special Forces attempted their rescue mission in the spring. Some informant assets on the ground in Syria have said that the U.S. raid may have missed the hostages by only a day or so, and a minor, back corridor blame-game later erupted in Washington over why last-minute drone surveillance missions had not been ordered before the U.S. raid. (A few additional details about the raid emerged last week; some military historians have noted the similarity between this most recent rescue mission and a Vietnam-era mission conducted in 1970 to rescue American POWs from a prison compound in North Vietnam. In both operations last-minute intelligence would have indicated that the prisoners had been moved to other locations).

Some conservative lawmakers in London have called upon the British government to authorize immediate airstrikes on ISIS positions as retaliation for Haines’ killing. Cameron’s emergency meeting with his security and military chiefs will likely produce some form of action, though few are predicting what that action will be.

Officials in Germany, France, Belgium and Canada all condemned the murder of Haines.

Haines had worked in hotspots before—in Libya and in southern Sudan. He had also done work in war zones for other charitable and non-violent organizations. His family said Haines had an unstoppable enthusiasm for humanitarian work, especially in dangerous conflict zones where he felt his work could produce the most rewarding outcome.

Related Thursday Review articles:

You're Gonna' Need a Bigger Foreign Policy; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 27, 2014.

Will James Foley's Death Raise the Stakes in Iraq?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 20, 2014.

ISIS and a Humanitarian Crisis; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 13, 2014.