Who is to blame for Jihadi John? Only himself

Story highlights

  • H.A. Hellyer: There is no template for explaining an individual's journey to a group like ISIS
  • Often a recruit will find themselves looking for "meaning" and ISIS provides certainty, says Hellyer
  • He adds: Regardless of context, each individual must take responsibility for their own actions

H.A. Hellyer is a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution and International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Follow him on Twitter @hahellyer. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)As more details about the infamous ISIS executioner "Jihadi John" become known, certain basic questions continue to be raised.

Is Islam as a faith to be blamed for Mohammed Emwazi's voyage to ISIS, otherwise known as the Islamic State?
Or is the "War On Terror" responsible, and is this merely "chickens coming home to roost?"
    The temptation is to come to simplistic answers.
    Confronted with such brazen depravity as shown in ISIS propaganda videos, many take what their propagandists say very seriously: That they are, indeed, doing what their faith tells them to do.
    H.A. Hellyer
    On the other hand, few believed ISIS when it was claimed they would negotiate with the Japanese authorities to release one of their citizens captured in Syria, who was later killed. Taking ISIS at their word is probably not the most sensible course of action -- it is obviously quite wrong -- and duplicitous -- about a number of things.
    There have been other neo-religious movements in both Muslim and Christian history.
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    The "Assassins," for example, which began in the 11th century, was a radical, heterodox movement of Muslims, which eventually died out -- in its own time, similar to ISIS today, it was decried and depicted as deviant by Muslim religious authorities as well as most Muslims.
    Among Christendom, many of the Nazi leadership in the 20th century espoused an ideology called "Positive Christianity." It obviously never attracted much of a following, and historians claim, "Only a few radicals on the extreme wing of liberal Protestantism would recognize such a mish-mash as true Christianity."
    Why, then, are we not prepared to expunge Islam from the mix when interrogating ISIS ideology?
    While most churches, Protestant and Catholic, rejected the "Positive Christianity" of Nazi Germany, there is no corresponding action from the world of Islam. The problem is, that's not entirely possible. Unlike Christendom, Islam does not admit a hierarchical, ecclesiastical authority -- so, no "Muslim Church" or "Islamic Pope" exists.
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    Having said that, nevertheless, there are systems of religious authority in Islam. They are more akin to academic peer review structures -- indeed, the concept of the modern university comes from the medieval Muslim seminary.
    Since the dawn of ISIS, numerous Muslim religious authorities have denounced the claim to authenticity by ISIS, on religious grounds -- none have given it that prize of legitimacy it so craves. That is, except for ISIS itself, and for some odd reason, some in the West who insist on taking ISIS at its word.
    Religious authorities at large, and Muslims in general, may recognize ISIS members as Muslims, albeit gravely deviant ones who ought to be treated as criminals.
    Just as Europeans en masse rejected the claims of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass killer, who claimed "Christianity" as a motivator, without denying he considered himself to be a Christian.
    In both cases, it is important to understand how this ideology is internally justified, and on what basis, particularly in terms of establishing methods for immunizing vulnerable people from possible recruitment strategies. That doesn't, nevertheless, entail recognizing their claims as accurate -- only that they take them seriously, and others may too.
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    That question of "vulnerability" has also been brought up a great deal in the last couple of weeks.
    There were some in the UK who argued that Jihadi John was subjected to a type of harassment by the British security services that proved to be a causal factor in his radicalization process.
    In one interview, the lobby group, Cage Prisoners, insisted in response to a question about responsibility for the beheadings in Syria: "The man who cut off their heads, and if you take that back a step, the people who potentially helped in his radicalization; in this case, the security services."
    Specialists in the field of radicalization took great exception to the implication, with experts from the likes of Exeter University and Kings College London describing it as "absurd," and "bizarre."
    Certainly, there are questions to be raised with regards to the British security services -- including how Jihadi John, who was known to them, was allowed to leave the country, as well as how suspects are interrogated and questioned.
    There shouldn't be any sensitivity about this -- the British security services do the job that they do precisely so Britons live in a society open enough to be able to ask these questions without fear or reprisal.
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    Nevertheless, the suggestion that the British security services somehow radicalized Jihadi John is peculiar.
    There are many high-profile members of ISIS in Syria and Iraq who underwent no harassment of any sort -- for example, Lotfi Arrifin, a youth leader in a Malaysian political party.
    There are also many who have undergone far more invasive encounters with other security establishments worldwide, at the hands of authoritarian governments in the Arab world and elsewhere -- they did not suddenly register for service in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.
    Does it make them more vulnerable to possible recruitment?
    It very well could -- but that's not a foregone conclusion. Otherwise, given the scale of autocratic oppression in recent history, we should have seen far more members of ISIS.
    There will be those who contend radical Islamist theology is all we need to look at in understanding radicalization -- there will be others who will place all attention on domestic issues such as the security services, or foreign policy.
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    The reality is, however, there is no template for explaining the voyage an individual takes in becoming a member of ISIS or any other radical Islamist group. For different individuals, different factors make them vulnerable to recruitment.
    More often than not, a recruit will find him or herself looking for some kind of "meaning" in this world -- and repugnant though ISIS ideology may be, it does provide a sense of certainty.
    What makes recruits more attuned to that kind of absolutism as opposed to going down other paths? It may be many things that condition them before they accept radical Islamism as their "savior."
    In all cases, nevertheless, there are two things we ought to keep foremost in mind. We must understand the context of the paths these recruits go through, to avoid others doing the same -- and we must always keep in mind that regardless of the context, only one person has responsibility for their actions. Each one of them, themselves.