London, Aug. 22: They seek him here, they seek him there, like an evil version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. “John the Jihadi” has already become the stuff of legend.
He is the man in the black mask heard speaking with an English accent in the footage of the beheading of American journalist James Foley.
British newspapers are giving “John the Jihadi” acres of space — nine pages in one case — because he is the local boy made bad. He is said to be part of a group of three British extremists, collectively nicknamed “The Beatles”.
Security forces have been given some names as to who “John” might be. The search to identify and kill or capture him has turned into the biggest manhunt of recent years.
The US and the UK are working closely together. The FBI is leading the hunt, backed on the British side by MI5, MI6 and the eavesdropping agency, GCHQ.
But the British interest in “John” is for an entirely different reason. It is now feared that there are between 400 and 500 British Muslims who have flocked to Syria and Iraq to take up the extremist cause.
Will “John” be identified? Chances are that he already has been because someone like him was almost certainly active in militant politics before leaving for Syria. A couple of French journalists who were released, probably after the payment of ransoms, have said that “John” was the man who guarded their group.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has told his security chiefs their top priority is to find the Brit who allegedly butchered Foley. There is a suggestion that the killing was done by someone else and “John” was picked as the front man because of his fluent English.
Cameron’s initial response was: “We have not identified the individual responsible, but from what we have seen, it looks increasingly likely that he is a British citizen.”
“We know that far too many British citizens have travelled to Iraq and Syria to take part in extremism and violence,” the Prime Minister said. “And what we must do is redouble all our efforts to stop people from going.”
Shiraz Maher, a senior researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, said Foley’s killing was evidence that British extremists were “some of the most vicious and vociferous fighters” in West Asia and “very much at the forefront of this conflict” with roles ranging from suicide bombers to executioners.
Lord Dannatt, the former chief of the general staff, suggested Britain should collaborate with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, which it has been trying to topple, in order to defeat the Islamic State (IS) that is said to recruit the British extremists.
IS need to be “opposed, confronted and defeated” in both Iraq and Syria, the former head of the army said.
“The Syrian dimension has got to be addressed. You cannot deal with half a problem. The old saying my ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend’ has begun to have some resonance with our relationship with Iran. I think it’s going to have some resonance with our relationship with Assad.”