“Jihadi John” the nom de guerre of Mohammed Emwazi, the executioner featured in the ghastly beheading videos of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, Peter Kassig, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto is dead.
Emwazi was memorialized in a glowing obituary published this week in Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq confirming claims made two months ago by the Americans that the Kuwaiti- born Englishman was taken out two months ago in airstrikes on Al-Raqqa, the “caliphate’s” capital in northeast Syria.
Emwazi’s removal is a key element of a series of key blows against Islamic State (ISIS) which began nearly a year ago when the organization lost the city of Kobani, a Syrian town on set directly on Turkish border .
The early IS stronghold Ramadi was taken back by the Iraqi army two weeks ago.
“Much of this year was setting the conditions to effectively contain and then start pushing back against Daesh [another name for ISIS] in Iraq and Syria,” said General John Allen, formerly President Obama’s point man on ISIS.
As pressure on Islamic state intensifies in Iraq and Syria, the organization is working to establish itself in other countries and construct alternative arenas for its activities and Allen cautioned participants at the annual Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv that it is too early to write the obituary for ISIS.
“While losing ground, no longer in relentless attack and no longer apparently undefeatable, Abu Baker Al Baghdadi did a smart thing when he began to bring in likeminded organizations, far flung from the caliphate itself and started designating them as distance provinces,” Allen observed.
“Daesh has jumped the fence,” said Allen.
Allen pointed to the DAASH’s in Libya, where last year it extended territorial control from its base in Sirte and now seeks to seize regions to the east where the country’s oil and shipping industries are concentrated while simultaneously staging operations in the region of Tripoli in the west.
Attacks on streets of Paris, against the Egyptian tourism industry and at Istanbul’s historic Hippodrome, demonstrate IS has affiliates and self-radicalized operatives who according to Allen “can do the bidding and extend the reach of the caliphate beyond the initial core area.
“They are not Islamists transformed to radicals – they are radicals transformed into jihadists,” said Jean-David Levitte, formerly the French ambassador to Washington now with the Brookings Institute policy think-tank.
Levitte is concerned about social conditions among Europe’s Muslim North African, Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants which lead to alienation and a desire to reject the civilization their parents chose to adapt in search of economic betterment. “What’s interesting to me is that they were not attracted by Al-Qa'ida which proposed only a destructive vision but instead found inspiration in IS’s positive proscription of a caliphate,” said Levitte.
The former diplomat said he thought France was doing the right thing by passing new anti-terror legislation that expands the government’s policing and surveillance powers and joining the military coalition challenging IS on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
“But in addition to the military fight we have to bring the battle to the internet and this is very difficult because it not just a law that one nation can pass- it’s a world problem and we have to ask ourselves how can we join forces and bring our own message to the young people they are attracting and make sure that the Islamic state propaganda will slowly be driven out of the internet.” Michele Flournoy, a former Under Secretary of Defense currently head of the Center for a New American Security sees potential and pitfalls in the emerging transnational anti-ISIS coalition.
“One of the challenges is that ISIS is on everybody’s priority list but when you look across the coalition it is number one for very few- and that’s hampered the effort both in terms of political will and allocation of resources necessary to deal them,” said Flournoy, who is thought to be on Hilary Clinton’s short list as the next US Secretary of Defense. That sobering reality was on display in the statement of Israel’s Defense Minister Defense Moshe Ya’alon who told the INSS forum that if he was to choose between Iran and ISIS - "I prefer ISIS."
The Saudis are aligned with the Israelis when drawing up their top enemies list while the Turks are more anxious about the rise of Kurdish nationalism and the deployment of Russian troops in Syria. So while last year saw the coalition able to wrest back about a quarter of the territory held by ISIS, further gains will require more coordination among divergent regional partners and intensive diplomacy between the global powers, “I get very frustrated listening to people who imply that there is military quick fix,” said Flournoy.
“Yes, from a practical perspective you can retake some or all of the territory, but as costly and difficult as that is it is– it’s the holding and governance of that territory afterwards that demands the greater resources and more careful planning.”
“ISIS came in for a reason and there are few places we’ve found capable, credible or legitimate partners on the ground to do this work. Where we have found them, such as among the Kurds, we are making good progress.”