The masked man in this image from a video released by Islamic State militants has been identified as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born British citizen. The militant, popularly known as Jihadi John, appears in several Islamic State beheading videos.
The masked man in this image from a video released by Islamic State militants has been identified as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born British citizen. The militant, popularly known as Jihadi John, appears in several Islamic State beheading videos. (Associated Press)

Part high-tech manhunt and part brutal captivity narrative, “Unmasking Jihadi John: The Anatomy of a Terrorist" is one documentary unlikely to leave anyone in its viewing audience bored. Biographies and character studies of monsters are hard to turn away from no matter how horrid the behavior chronicled is. In fact, for some, the more depraved the behavior, the harder it is to turn away.

But, as a media critic, what I can’t stop thinking about after screening the 96-minute film, which premieres July 31 on HBO, are not so much the grisly murders the so-called Jihadi John committed on camera for the world to see, but the way this unexceptional, non-warrior type — real name Mohammed Emwazi — who grew up in London watching “The Simpsons” and rooting for Manchester United used social media to become one of the most feared terrorists on the planet.

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The film says he got some help in that effort from mainstream media, which boosted him with sometimes unfiltered coverage — and a memorable tabloid nickname to boot.

“The Islamic State could not have planned it better,” one of the Americans involved in the manhunt says at the start of the film. “If there was one thing, I think, that contributed to the rise of his fame and the expansion of his own message it was the fact that the international media called him ‘Jihadi John.’"

While help from the mainstream media mattered, what was far more consequential was Emwazi’s skilled use of media, specifically his ability to exploit the symbiosis between social media and transgressive behavior for a huge audience.

Social media still offers too few gate-keeping standards when it comes to rule-breaking, taboo busting words and acts. In fact, the further beyond the pale of accepted mainstream values your acts are, the more likely they are to find a large audience on social media and, initially at least, be valued by platforms because of the traffic generated.

Emwazi took transgression to a horrible place with beheadings posted on YouTube and Twitter, but how far removed is that from videos that went viral of homeless people or others being beaten, stomped and worse? Are they not at least on the same continuum? Or, how about cell phone images and videos gone viral of sexual assault and rape, like the ones chronicled in the documentary “Roll Red Roll” that led to the conviction of two high school football players in Ohio in 2013?

Watching Emwazi manipulate social media for the purposes of ISIL propaganda, I could not help but think of the way in which President Trump uses his milder forms of transgression on social media for the very same kind of propagandistic purposes.

I am not claiming a moral equivalency between what Trump does on social media and what Emwazi did on video in the desert (I say that, because I can already see the headline at The Daily Caller or some other highly-politicized, right-wing site: “Crazed media critic compares president to Jihadi John”). But evil is evil. And what Trump does with social media is evil, particularly when it comes to trying to exploit racial divides.

Case in point: Trump didn’t like all the media attention for the strong, confident, highly-skilled members of the Women’s National Soccer Team, some of whom dissed him and repudiated what he stood for in terms of patriarchy. So, with a few ugly tweets, he shifted the media focus away from them to another group of women, four first-term members of Congress known as The Squad whom he felt he could use for his political ends of getting re-elected. All it took was a willingness to make overtly racist statements on Twitter. His attacks on The Squad have continued on social media and in presidential question-and-answer press sessions for more than a week now; he recently questioned the intelligence of the four women of color — another racist staple.

. As I wrote last week, transgressive behavior on social media is Trump’s go-to strategy for controlling the national media conversation and, thus, our national attention.

“Unmasking Jihadi John" traces Emwazi’s seemingly visceral connection to and understanding of media to his earliest years.

“He loved to be in the computer room,” a teacher says of the teenage Emwazi. “It’s almost like he came alive when he was in front of a screen."

That media connection continued with training and then working in the IT industry during and after college at the University of Westminster.

His media skills were so valued by ISIL that in addition to the beheading videos, on which he spoke to the camera and murdered kneeling hostages, he directed others up until the time of his own death in what U.S. officials said was a drone attack.

One hostage, who was later released, described how Emwazi positioned hostages and ISIL members for maximum visual effect during proof-of-life videos the group made and posted on social media. He is also described in the film as the architect of the visual style used in a particularly graphic and gruesome video showing a caged Jordanian pilot being burned alive.

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“They were very, very skillful propaganda,” a British intelligence analyst says in the film. “They re-created the medieval barbarity of 7th Century with these great-bladed weapons and beheadings — all in the sands of the desert. And the world’s media, I’m afraid, fell for it. And, of course, with the level of interest, the level of coverage, the level of fear went up as well.”

Director Anthony Wonke and producer Richard Kerbaj made many wise choices in this documentary. They chose not to show viewers the beheadings. We see Emwazi standing alongside the kneeling hostages with his knife drawn, addressing the camera. But each sequence ends before the beheading with a snapshot of victims from earlier periods in their lives.

Wonke and Kerbaj also humanize each victim through interviews with former hostages who were freed and relatives of some of those who were killed. Two of the most powerful interviews are with Diane Foley, mother of American journalist James Foley, and Bethany Haines, daughter of David Haines, a British aid worker. Both Foley and Haines were beheaded in 2014.

“I was totally unaware of it until an AP reporter called me sobbing,” Diane Foley said of the video of her son’s execution at Emwazi’s hand.

“And, you know, I couldn’t even understand what she was crying about,” she continued. “And she told me to look at Twitter. So, that’s when I saw the image. I knew it was Jim ... I didn’t know if it was authentic ... I didn’t know if it was true until the president announced it that evening on TV."

She paused at the memory of those horrible media moments. “So, it was, you know. It was, um. It was awful ...”

Jihadi John cruelly controlled not only the last moments of James Foley’s life, but what his mother would see of her son’s death on Twitter through the terrible marriage of transgression and social media.

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As a society, we desperately need to think about the ways in which social media are affecting our personal and political lives, particularly in America as we move deeper into the 2020 presidential race. And as an industry, news media must remember its responsibility to expose — and not amplify — propaganda.

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