Jihadi John's Death Will Not Stop ISIS

Jihadi John
A masked, black-clad militant, who has been identified by the Washington Post newspaper as Briton Mohammed Emwazi, brandishes a knife in this still image from a 2014 video obtained from SITE Intel Group February 26, 2015. The Pentagon said that Emwazi had been targeted in a U.S. airstrike in Raqqa on November 13, 2015. SITE Intel Group/Handout via Reuters/Reuters

The masked face of Mohammed Emwazi, or "Jihadi John," first gained prominence across our TV screens, newspapers, and social media in August 2014. On Thursday night, it was reported that he had possibly been killed by a U.S. drone strike. The lack of initial facial visibility when he first popped up on our screens had been compensated by the sound of his thick London accent, a constant reminder of how a "shy football loving teenager" had become a spearhead for beheading.

Since his first appearance, as a direct consequence of the attention dedicated to him, the image of the masked figure had become ubiquitous and inescapable, creating a potent propaganda tool for the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). A jihadist bogeyman was born.

The first question now is whether his death will have any significant impact upon ISIS. The second is whether ISIS's poster-boy is set to be replaced with another.

It is important to understand what Emwazi's role was in ISIS. In sum, it was for propaganda purposes and not operational. The puppet that was "Jihadi John" would be dug out of the group's Raqqa stronghold to turn ISIS's infamously brutal narrative into theater. The art in prolonging the terrorist threat came from the use of kidnapping and beheadings, thus fueling the constant churn of news stories that kept the "Jihadi John" persona ever present. He became one of the most marketed products of the ISIS brand. The terror he helped orchestrate was not grounded in statistical lethality, but in the psychological fear that he was going to barbarically behead fellow Britons and others in the region.

We have become familiar with targeted assassinations of decentralized terrorist organisations that have little significant impact. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the ideological godfather of ISIS and the deceased leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was also killed by coalition forces in 2006. However, as is all too apparent today, the death of Al-Zarqawi did not mean the immediate death of Al-Qaeda's ideology and subsequently that of ISIS. If anything, this ideology has been strengthened.

Militant groups such as ISIS have proven to be versatile and adaptable after setbacks. The fact that ISIS produced nearly 1,200 pieces of propaganda in one month shows how they are now operating as a transmedia entity and will develop new products to market to the rest of the world. It is highly likely that there are people waiting to replace Emwazi—evidenced by the abundance of foreign ISIS recruits who have shown a willingness to behead their captives. His killing will have little impact to the operational capabilities of ISIS, unless the propaganda war is won by our side.

While it can be important in some cases to have targeted killings of people if that is the only practical option available for self-defence, we will not win the long-term war unless we also challenge the root cause of ISIS's violence: the Salafi-jihadi ideology that underpins it and the entire Islamist spectrum that legitimizes this murderous fringe. How can it be that an affluent west London Kuwaiti has so much in common with three teenage girls from Bethnal Green?

It is clear that an Islamist ideology that consistently propagates the message of a fascist caliphate based on religious superiority underpins ISIS's worldview. The constant rhetoric of, "In my ideal state/caliphate, homosexuals would be thrown off buildings," and generational narratives of hate and paranoia to Shiite and other Muslims has undoubtedly given wind to a group that does not just talk in a conceptual format but actually carries out these actions.

If we are ever to compromise the capabilities of ISIS, it must come through a societal shift to alienate the Islamist ideology in key institutions, such as the universities that still host extremist speakers and the internet that fueled his desire to join Al-Shabab. This can only come through providing viable counter and alternative narratives to ISIS and empowering the voices that promote these messages.

The divisive and medieval ideology that underpins ISIS's ideology has existed for generations. If it is not addressed, it will continue to linger for generations to come regardless of who has been killed.

If it is proven, Emwazi's killing may be an operational success in the short-term. However, it is not a long-term solution to the brand that ISIS has created and is promoting. His killing is merely like that of chopping off one of the heads of a hydra.

Haras Rafiq is the Managing Director of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank based in the U.K.