LONDON — He is "Jailer John" to his prisoners but "Jihadi John" to London's tabloid newspapers, and right now, he might just be the most wanted man in the world. "He" is the jihadist seen beheading the captured American journalist James Foley in Syria. He is British. He is our problem. Worse still, he is not alone.
If Foley's executioner were a rogue radical or "lone wolf," it would be easier to dismiss him as a lunatic extremist of the sort with which all countries are afflicted. But he is not a one-off. The jihadist who executed Foley is one of, it is estimated, at least 500 British citizens likely to be fighting with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. He is believed to be the head jailer, responsible for guarding a number of foreign hostages in IS's de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria. He and his British colleagues, it is reported, are nicknamed the "Beatles" by their murderous colleagues, a nod to their country of origin.
But it's also a nod to something else. It speaks to the fact that, far from being products of an austere and rigorous religious fundamentalism, today's jihadists are just as likely to come from Western backgrounds that would ordinarily be considered utterly unremarkable.
Across Europe, from France to Belgium to Sweden, there are reckoned to be several hundred Islamic extremists fighting with IS in the Middle East. And the United States isn't immune to the phenomenon either. But Foley's murder has returned the spotlight to Britain's particular — and acute — problem with homegrown Islamic radicalism.
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As Prime Minister David Cameron, writing in the Daily Telegraph last week, put it: "We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology, which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime."
Foley's executioner is not even the first British jihadist to orchestrate the beheading of an American journalist. The kidnapping and subsequent execution of the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl was organized by Omar Sheikh, a 28-year-old radical from north London. Last summer, for instance, two Muslim converts stabbed, killed and then attempted to decapitate Lee Rigby, a member of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, on a south London street in broad daylight.
For some, terrifyingly, the jihad has become a badge of radical chic. A lifestyle choice like any other. Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, another London jihadist, recently posted a picture on Twitter of him displaying a severed head. His message: "Chillin' with my homie, or what's left of him."
In 2008, an internal MI5 report, obtained by the Guardian, claimed there was no "typical pathway to violent extremism." Many of the men who had gone on to commit violence, in fact, were not regular attendees at mosques; a disproportionate number, in fact, were converts to Islam. Many are motivated less by an austere vision of Islam than by the simple thrill of joining a cause.
No wonder the security services often seem to be in the dark. Clamping down on radical preachers or keeping a wary eye on Islamic societies at British universities might be a start. But identifying "Jihadi John" and stopping him is a different matter. Military action against the Islamic State might suppress the threat the organization poses in the Middle East, but it could further radicalize other British Muslims who would interpret airstrikes against IS as another "war on Islam." Gains in one arena might easily be offset by setbacks in another. Yet doing nothing is not an attractive option either.
The British government is announcing plans to confiscate the passports of suspects who might intend to travel abroad. This tactic has been used in the past to limit soccer hooliganism, but today's threat to civil order is of a rather different magnitude. The government has also said it will ramp up efforts to strip citizenship from those whose terrorist affiliations are deemed to have forfeited their right to be considered British. Even so, these measures can only be reckoned a small part of the solution to the problem of radicalization.
Britain — as a state and as a society — needs to find a way of talking to disaffected Muslims in ways that help diminish the appeal of violence and extremism.
Each month brings with it the revelation that another group of would-be jihadists has been discovered; each month fresh prosecutions are brought on terrorism charges. And yet the supply of young men prepared to fight for the Islamic State or other radical groups shows little to no sign of being exhausted.
Alex Massie writes for the Spectator and The Times of London.