Dressed in black and wielding a knife, the figure who has come to represent ISIL has also become the epitome of evil itself.
Until recently, “Jihadi John” was unknown to the world. But last month, the hooded man was named as Mohammed Emwazi.
ISIL has spent much of its existence attempting to reach new lows of human depravity. When news filtered through of the first beheading of a foreign hostage, the world recoiled. And, after broadcasting a video last month purportedly showing a Jordanian pilot being burnt alive, they also claimed responsibility for last Wednesday’s murders in Tunisia.
Yet, in outing Emwazi as the poster boy of ISIL, the world has proven once again how curiosity almost always gives way to a desire for some greater understanding than that, which in turn always results in disappointment for those seeking solace.
Indeed, just like discovering the true identity of a serial killer who has terrorised one’s native city, the unveiling of Emwazi fascinated for a while – but soon lapsed into something less gratifying. While Emwazi has proven to be a man without scruples and now the world’s most wanted criminal, he was found to be just a man.
Born in Kuwait, he became a Londoner when his family moved to the British capital in 1994 as a six-year-old. He attended school and studied computer science at a London university then, it appears, went off the rails.
Yet, in publicly seeking to discover how the 26-year-old made his way to ISIL’s vanguard from the streets of London we have only served to add to the grotesque celebrity of a disturbed young man whose wickedness can’t disguise his overall ordinariness.
But, as we’ve witnessed from other events, perpetrators of such acts are rarely anything other than ordinary people indulging in criminal behaviour. The two men who killed the Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris in January: ordinary. The countless suicide bombers who send innocent men, women and children in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East to their graves: ordinary.
They may seek glory and a special place in heaven – but stand out only for their delusions and their actions.
Anders Behring Breivik was one such delusional individual who, far from the shores of the restive Middle East, murdered 77 people in a killing spree in Norway four years ago.
He was found bad, not mad – and sentenced to a long custodial sentence. There was something of the “banality of evil” about Breivik.
Coined by German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt to illustrate the almost managerial efficiency of Adolf Eichmann, one of the key architects of the Holocaust, the term is a perfect fit for the Breiviks of this world, even if it is also an intellectual cliché.
Indeed, during his trial, it was easy to spot the banal in the round-faced man who lived with his mother – but who thought himself an anti-Muslim warrior.
Banal is not an inappropriate word to describe Emwazi and the revelations surrounding his true identity.
As photographs emerged of Emwazi’s life before he joined ISIL, one pictured him wearing an oversized Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap. Somewhat perturbed by the sight, the Pirates themselves issued a statement: “The classic gold P stands for Pittsburgh and is worn by our players, coaches and fans with a great sense of pride. It is absolutely sickening to everyone within the Pirates organisation, and to our great fans, to see this murderer wearing a Pirates cap in this old photo.”
That they felt obliged to make such a statement is as ludicrous as the determination by some to portray Emwazi himself as more demon than knife-wielding human.
The world’s glare will soon move away from Emwazi. For his parents, the terrible realisation that their son is responsible for some of the most terrible crimes in our already tragedy-littered century will remain. Yet, his fate is probably sealed.
As the world’s most-wanted man, Emwazi will surely meet a violent end sooner or later as the once elusive Osama bin Laden did several years ago. Only then, perhaps, will the world see him for the very ordinary man that he is.
Alasdair Soussi’s new book, In The Shadow Of The Cotton Tree, is out now.
On Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi