The revelations Thursday over the identity of “Jihadi John” — that he apparently grew up and was educated in Britain, and that he has a degree in computing from Westminster University in London — have left us with some profoundly troubling issues.
It appears clear that security authorities have known for some time who he is, but kept this fact hidden, either, one assumes, because they were attempting to capture him or because they were trying to protect his family from vigilantes. Whatever the reason, the fact that he had the benefit of higher education (and had picked up state of the art IT skills) once again highlights how our education system fails to protect either us, the citizens of a free country, or the students themselves from the violent horrors of Islamism.
Meanwhile, the fact that many British universities this month stated they will continue to resist the proposals made by the government in the latest counterterrorism legislation (including imposing on them a duty to keep extremists off their campuses and notify the authorities if they believe their students have been brainwashed by them) is nothing short of a total national disgrace.
But the news surrounding Mohammed Emwazi, identified by the Washington Post as a Kuwaiti-born Londoner, raises a few other points worth noting.
First of all, by giving him a name, we give his victims’ loved ones the hope that he may be captured or brought to trial at some future date. The release of his name could also deter him from further acts of unspeakable sadism, or perhaps make some of his comrades with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria rethink some of their plans. And it might even prompt some young European to think twice about going out to live and die for ISIS.
This case also makes it clear that the time has now come for a new U.N. declaration or Atlantic Charter to the effect that these Islamist war criminals will be hunted down, and that retribution for their crimes will be sought, just as we pursued the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and elsewhere. Comprehensive lists of ISIS members should be drawn up as a matter of urgency.
In addition, the time has come to review what can be done to stop young Muslim men and women from joining the ranks of the jihadis. Education has a part to play, but it is plain that whatever has been done so far has not been adequate. New, more proactive measures may be required.
At the same time, it is also self-evident that education alone is not enough. Instead, we also need effective intelligence-led security policies that must include letting our intelligence agencies access electronic data in their search of jihadi recruitment campaigns. This is the only way we have to protect everyone.
We know, thanks to Edward Snowden and his friends, that our ability to monitor and disrupt jihadists has declined by perhaps a third. Obviously, they continue to communicate, but either they are doing so in ways we find increasingly hard to track, or our security agencies are so fearful of being tarred as “snoopers” that they have become far too cautious about investigating those who want to do us grave harm.
Finally, it must surely be clear to Western leaders that as long as President Barack Obama refuses to dismantle ISIS as a political entity in the only way possible — by putting boots on the ground — Islamism will continue to present us in the West with a monumental threat. Sadly, it is one which will grow, fueled as it is by those we have educated with great care and to whom we have taught some of our most useful skills.
Anthony Glees is professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom and directs its Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies. The views expressed are his own.