Published in Commentary Magazine
ISIS finally appears to be losing significant areas of territory. Along with Iraqi forces recapturing Ramadi, the group is believed to have been forced to retreat from as much as 40 percent of the ground it held in northern Iraq. We can expect to see ISIS responding to such losses on the battlefield in a number of ways. One that we are already witnessing is a surge of ISIS activity in other parts of the region; in Yemen, in the Sinai, and particularly in Libya. But we should also expect to see ISIS and its supporters channeling their energies into direct attacks against the West. Pundits and politicians who attempted to claim that ISIS had no designs beyond the Islamic world simply hadn’t taken the trouble to read or listen to anything the group actually said. The will to target the West had always been there and the gradual rise in ISIS-linked terror plots against Westerners is there to prove it.
A recent and particularly disturbing indication of ISIS’s obsessional hatred of the Western world came in the form of a new propaganda video released by the group on Sunday. Along with the standard obscene footage of murder dressed up as execution that we’ve come to expect from these videos, came the chillingly familiar sound of an ISIS narrator speaking with a British accent. It is now the nature of the war that we are in that the masked ISIS propagandist in the video who derided David Cameron and promised retribution against the British people for the UK’s recent decision to bomb ISIS in Syria, should himself evidently be British.
Of course, we had previously become acquainted with the coarse London street accent of the despicable Mohammed Emwazi (aka Jihadi John). The would-be caliphate’s swaggering executioner — responsible for the murder of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig, among others — was fortunately taken out by a U.S. drone strike back in November. Yet clearly ISIS has deemed that the propaganda value of using one of its British recruits in these videos to be so high that it has now apparently sought to replace Emwazi.
Featuring Jihadists from Western countries in its propaganda serves a number of obvious purposes for ISIS. When the warped splinter of young British Muslims who already harbor some sympathies for Islamist attitudes hears a man speaking in an accent and manner instantly recognizable to them, it can only act as a siren song, further fostering the thought that perhaps they, too, should be courageous enough to do as he has done. Of course, one also hopes that the cynical use of a young child in the video will serve as a shocking wake-up call for some of those who might have believed ISIS’s cause to have been a just one.
For the wider public, the intended impact is somewhat different. Clearly, the threat of further terror attacks is supposed to undermine morale and support for intervention against ISIS — because contrary to what opponents of airstrikes have claimed, bombing ISIS is not giving the group “exactly what they want,” and as seen in France the Islamists are now engaged in an effort to terrorize the public into opposing further action against ISIS. But perhaps more significant still is the way in which using British recruits in these videos serves as a reminder to Western countries of their abysmal failure to stop extremists from going to fight for ISIS; with as many as 1000 recruits thought to have travelled from Britain alone.
Speculation continues about who the figure in the latest video might be. Many have suggested that it could well be Abu Rumaysah. That remains unconfirmed, but if this does turn out to be Rumaysah, then this will have been a case study in how European authorities have neglected to act against homegrown militants. After all, Abu Rumaysah was a prominent extremist who vocally advocated for Muslims to join ISIS. Naturally, the BBC and other British TV stations thought it would be a good idea to repeatedly provide Rumaysah with airtime to broadcast his contemptible views, assisting him in reaching as many listeners as possible. Finally, he was arrested on suspicion of being a member of the outlawed group al-Muhajiroun. Yet the authorities failed to confiscate his passport and while awaiting trial he made the crossing to Paris — undetected by border control — and on from there Rumaysah journeyed to Syria.
Whether the man in the video is Abu Rumaysah or yet another Islamist fanatic that the British authorities scandalously failed to prevent from joining ISIS, one wonders what guarantee there is that he and others like him won’t also simply be allowed to return to Europe to make good on their pledge of retribution, just as no one stopped Rumaysah from taking his own advice when he eventually went to live under the Islamic State he had long publicly lauded. After all, so many of the terror atrocities already committed in Europe were perpetrated by returning Jihadists. That was what happened in the attack on Brussels’ Jewish Museum and in both of last year’s Paris attacks. The streams of Middle Eastern and North African migrants currently entering Europe now provide the perfect cover for hardened and well-trained militants to hide amongst. Given that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the November attacks, appears to have been able to freely travel back and forth between Belgium, France, and Syria, it doesn’t seem at all implausible to imagine that one day the London accented man in the ISIS video might also be able to return.
Tom Wilson is Resident Associate Fellow at the Centre for the New Middle East at The Henry Jackson Society.