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James Foley Vs Jihadi John: Media Spectacles and the Re-framing of Terror in the United Kingdom’s response to ISIS

November was a month of terror and mourning for Europe. The threat of an attack from the Islamic State had been a looming presence within the European nervous system since the release of a series of beheading videos in Autumn 2014. One year on, this threat made an explosive appearance onto the streets of Paris as an evening of Friday night revelry was brought to a dramatic end by bullets and bombs. These grotesque videos were the first time that our formerly distant enemy extended its reach of terror beyond the Middle East, posing a direct challenge to the West by criticising its foreign policy and ruthlessly killing civilian hostages, including American journalist James Foley. This threat was embodied by one particular figure, Jihadi John, who, being a British national came to represent the potential danger posed by the radicalistion of European Muslims and quickly became the Islamic State’s most famous executioner.

In the months following the first video’s release, I conducted a media analysis investigating the impact that visual media, in this case the beheading videos, can have as an instrument of war, not only as a tool to disseminate fear but also to elicit political intervention. The analysis was part of a research project which asked the question ‘Can a video change the course of history?’ and we are now able to see, given the escalating conflict with ISIS, that indeed these videos played a crucial role to ignite fear within the European nervous system, as well as being the catalyst needed to gain consent for air-strikes in the Middle East.

In this endless war on terror, alliances and enemies are constantly shifting and a certain level of historical amnesia is necessary for governments to frame certain groups as the enemy and targets of war. Now, twelve months later, since the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, the refugee crisis and the attacks in Paris, Syria has now become the main theatre of war while security discourses have become tangled, mediated, and reframed to serve the geopolitical agendas of Western governments. Therefore this initial analysis serves as an important historical reminder of how this conflict began, and in light of the Paris attacks, with the declaration of a state of emergency and many European governments wishing to extend their policing powers, the analysis seems all the more relevant. We can see now how events have transpired, and that the continued responses of the UK and other European governments have not helped to prevent a terrorist attacks in Europe, and in fact, I would argue, have only worked to increase that threat.


When the video depicted the beheading of US journalist James Foley was released on the 19th of August 2014, UK Secretary of State Philip Hammond was quoted in the Evening Standard (De Peyer, 2014) that ‘(he didn’t) think the video changes anything, it just heightens awareness of a situation which is very grave and which we have been working on for many months.’ Perhaps in terms of the number of British born militants returning from Iraq and Syria and the potential threat they may pose to the security of the UK, the video did not change anything. However, the video held particular significance for the nation due to the fact that the member of ISIS featured in the video sending a ‘message to the West’ had a British accent. Consequently, in the months following the video’s release, a government supported media frenzy ensued which worked to evoke fear within the population, creating a clearly defined enemy in which the nation could unite in opposition towards. These actions resulted in establishment of counter-terror measures which infringe legal rights, as well as helped to generate consent for (or a general sense of apathy towards) air strikes in the Middle East. We can see a strikingly similar process at work in response to the November 13th attacks in Paris, with President Hollande declaring a three month long state of emergency which removes the need for juridical oversight when conducting raids and detaining potential terror suspects, as well as French Muslims becoming framed as an enemy to the security of the nation (Goodman, Louati, 2015). These actions, I would argue, rather than aiding the situation in fact only serve to inflame it.

The visual and discursive field has, since the days of Sun Tzu, been a battle ground when waging wars, and as Virilio (1989: 8) reminds us: ‘war can never break free from the magical spectacle because its very purpose is to produce that spectacle: to fell the enemy is not so much to capture as to ‘captivate’ him, to instil the fear of death before he actually dies.’ But despite the fact that the production of military spectacles is an age old technique of warfare, technological developments since the early twentieth century have revolutionised the way in which war in documented and reported. Since the ‘pictorial turn’ within contemporary cultural studies, visual media have increasingly come to be viewed and analysed as a material instrument of war (Butler, 2010) (Mitchell, 1995). Of course, they do not cause as much physical violence as the more obvious instruments of war, but can work to generate fear amongst our foes, as well as framing certain populations as legitimate targets for missiles by working to ‘act upon the senses so that war is thought to be an inevitability, something good, or even a source of moral satisfaction’ (Butler, 2010: ix). From this perspective, visual media are seen to hold particular affective and agentive capacities, and therefore in this paper I shall not focus so much upon the content of the video itself, but map how it captivated the European nervous system, and how it has been mobilised and placed within a wider discursive field in order to serve the interests of government.

With the rise of new media technologies, visual weapons of war gain a wider audience and so have a greater influence upon shaping military affairs, and the beheading video illustrated that ISIS are a highly skilled opponent in terms of their technological capabilities and command of social media in order gain new recruits and disseminate fear. However, in an attempt to deny the ISIS video of it’s intended magical potency, the Metropolitan police quickly declared that watching it could be regarded as a terrorist offence, and it was also promptly removed from youtube and other online media websites (Palmer, 2014). The video was swiftly woven into the state’s own mythical narrative, transformed into their own kind of ‘recruitment video,’ and therefore when the UK audience received ‘the message to America,’ that message was already mediated and placed within a wider discursive realm, framing a certain view of reality to serve the interests of the state.

After a brief timeline of the events that unfolded in the month following the video’s release, I will analyse the government and media response, showing how counter-terror measures work to establish the UK as one nodal point within a wider western security apparatus. By unpacking these narratives, one can trace the contours of the security apparatus while also gaining an insight upon they type of individual who considered a suitable and desirable citizen, ‘invited’ to reside within. I will then assess these events through two theoretical frameworks developed by WJT Mitchell, who in turn builds upon the work of Derrida, that of auto-immunity and the cloning of terror, arguing that through their attempt to contain the risk of a potential terrorist attack by British citizens who have been trained by ISIS, they in fact mirror the actions of terrorists, and instead propose a different approach to deal with the radicalisation of Muslim youth to prevent extremism.


When the UK heard the voice of purported ISIS member, who has since been named ‘Jihadi John’ by the media, it had a particularly chilling effect and ignited fear within the country’s nervous system, particularly in London. This is because it is an accent with which most are familiar: the accent of London youth, particularly second generation diaspora of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent, a voice that can be heard in the classroom, on the street, on the tube, and so on, thus placing what was previously viewed as a distant conflict onto our doorsteps. The tabloid media desperately sought to put a name to the masked figure, and although it took intelligence services some time to identify Kuwaiti born, Westminster graduate Mohammed Emwazi as ‘Jihadi John’, initially former Maida Vale resident Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary was put in the spotlight and accused of the beheading (Elgot, 2014). Not long after, our little leader of London, Boris Johnson, seemed to confirm and inflate these fears by recklessly claiming in his Telegraph column on the 24th August 2014 that it is only a matter of time until ‘the tide of terror will eventually lap at our front door.’

Despite the lack of evidence to support Boris’ inflammatory comments, he called for the reintroduction of control orders which would allow authorities to make ‘rebuttable presumption’ that UK and dual citizens returning from Iraq or Syria have been trained by ISIS and pose a threat to the security of the nation, and consequently grant the power to temporarily revoke their passports. Although Boris is well known for his casual xenophobia and blundering social commentary1, unfortunately as the Mayor of one of the world’s most multicultural and diverse cities he in fact wields extraordinary influence, being responsible for the Metropolitan Police Force. His suggestions were echoed by Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Chief of Scotland yard on London’s Biggest Conversation (LBC), a popular radio station in the capital with an estimated one million listeners per week. These proposals would seem to imply a reversal of the age old maxim ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ and a removal of what the Telegraph refers to as ‘the burden of proof’ in order to swiftly detain anyone they suspect of supporting the Islamic State.

Ten days after the release of the video, the UK Terror Threat was raised to severe, with Prime Minister David Cameron declaring that a terrorist attack in the UK was highly likely, despite the fact that no evidence to support such claims had been gathered by British intelligence services (‘UK Raises Terror Threat,’ 2014). Although Cameron stated that he wished to avoid knee jerk reactions, he proposed similar counter-terror measures as those suggested by Boris, which include allowing intelligence agencies to access passenger’s flight data and temporarily remove the passports of any terrorist suspects, in order to ‘control the flow of British born jihadists travelling to and from Iraq and Syria’ (‘Cameron Announces Plans,’ 2014). These measures would reinstate ancient royal prerogative powers, meaning that it is up to government, rather than the High Court to determine if potential terrorists should be stripped of their citizenship, and thus would directly threaten the separation of power between executive, judiciary and legislature (Parekh, 2014)

These discussions and proposed counter-terror measures illustrate how government must negotiate between competing discourses which on the one hand view Great Britain as an autonomous island under attack, and on the other a country connected within a globalised economy, linked to other nations through flows and circulations of capital, people and ideas. The former view, espoused by Boris, reflects the essential narrative necessary for constructing the imagined community of the nation: it creates a shared sense of identity between those who reside within the imaginary boundaries of the nation in opposition to those who are outside, and is one that is worryingly gaining greater political currency in the UK. Although it only holds one seat in the House of Commons, The UK Independence Party has been represented as a new political contender within the classic three party system, and is a party to which several Conservative MPs and high profile donors recently defected, so it appears that the government are appealing to this populist sentiment in order to avoid losing further support. We can also see a similar sentiment in President Hollande’s claims that, following the November 13 attacks, France effectively ‘closed its borders,’ which seem all the more extraordinary, given the fact that France’s continental borders are a lot more porous than those of the British Isles (Noack, 2015).

These discourses in turn reflect differing, but complementary modalities of power which we see at work today, those of discipline and control. As Foucault (1977) outlines, the logic of a disciplinary society works through mechanisms of enclosure and confinement, which create clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders. Any threat towards the polis is removed from the city walls, contained and monitored within institutions such as the prison or asylum so that order and stability may prevail within, while citizens who reside within have already internalised the sovereign gaze and are thus self disciplined without the need for confinement as they instead monitor themselves (Diken, Laustsen, 2002). We can see such a logic reflected in Boris’ suggestions, as he seems to have a clear idea in his mind who exactly should be included or excluded from his city, and wants to effectively ‘close the gates’ to prevent terror from entering the city limits. We can also read from his speculations that ‘he (Jihadi John) was probably born in our wonderful NHS […] and his family have very likely spent their lives cushioned by our welfare state’, alongside his phrasing that ‘we invite terror’, which to me alludes to guests rather than citizens, that Boris’ argument also reflects anti-immigration and neoliberal sentiments: that the state is too generous in its provisions for migrants as well as the ‘undeserving poor.’

However, the idea that we live in such an enclosed society is a myth, what we experience today is are new technologies of power and spatial logic, what Deleuze (1995) refers to as a post-disciplinary society of control. Once citizens have internalised the sovereign’s gaze, power becomes diffuse and decentralised, no longer operating by enclosing and fixing subjects but rather through constantly anticipating potential risks. The old borders of the disciplinary society have collapsed, and a society of control takes the form of a network, rather than a hierarchy, connected by flows of finance, information, ideologies, and people, which removes the clear insider – outsider distinctions of a disciplinary society. Amid such mixing and hybridity, as networks become entangled and cross each other, it becomes incredibly difficult to define a clear Other, or in our case an ‘enemy,’ therefore difference is instead regulated through circuits of movement, which are channelled and directed, like a form of traffic control, if you will (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 331).

Although this deterritorialization of power makes it more pervasive, it is also ultimately it’s weakness: a network is vulnerable to attack and infiltration at any point, as the centre can be accessed by anyone. Therefore one of the greatest challenges to this modality of power is circulation, and it must constantly regulate the flows which cut across this generic landscape, as well as try to gather as much information as possible to determine whether they pose a risk or not (Diken, Laustsen, 2002: 7). Consequently it is security, rather than discipline, which becomes the dominant political discourse in a society of control, and the key task of the security apparatus is to constantly anticipate potential threats which may disturb the social order and manage them accordingly. We can see how the new counter-terror measures attempt to regulate these flows through being able to gather greater intelligence about citizens and monitor border crossings.

However, these two logics of power are not mutually exclusive, and the two work in tandem: flows are herded into strategically placed spaces of enclosure, such as passport control or the prison, which act as a dam or a tap regulate movement, allowing the security apparatus to temporarily detain perceived threats until it is determined whether they should be contained or released (Caton, Zacka, 2010: 208). The development of new counter-terror measures, greater sharing of intelligence between European nations, as well as joint police operations such as ‘Mos Maiorum’2 illustrate that Britain is anything but an enclosed society, and rather one node within Fortress Europe. Caton and Zacka (2010) outline how the infamous Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib functioned in a similar, although more grotesque manner, acting as a node within a wider western security apparatus. In order to be able to put individuals through the mechanisms of the security apparatus, they must be malleable subjects- easily stripped of civic and political rights- reducible to the state which theorist Giorgio Agamben (1998: 43) terms ‘bare life,’ resembling the figure of homo sacer, he who can may be killed (or in this case detained) by anyone with impunity.

Agamben argues that the sovereign gains its power by declaring the conditions for ‘a state of exception’, a suspension of law, and actively abandoning certain subjects from it’s biopolitical purview, however he warns us that ‘a state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become itself terroristic’ (Agamben 2001). Temporarily stripped of their citizenship, those returning from Iraq or Syria will be at the mercy of the security apparatus, whether or not they have had any involvement with what the state deems ‘terrorist activity’. However, when the state is not hampered by ‘the burden of proof’ anyone is potentially homo sacer, and without this burden of proof, innocent people may be unjustly detained, a repeat of the injustices previously seen throughout this endless ‘war on terror’. In light of these developments, a question one should consider is when those returning from Iraq or Syria have their passports temporarily revoked, how is it determined whether they have been trained by ISIS, and also where are they sent? Will they disappear within the apparatus, only to re -merge in a few years time wearing orange jumpsuits, or featured in US Army photographs, hooded and beaten?

It is from this point that we can see that this conflict is far more complex than the black and white picture in which it is framed by the state. Rather, in the era of trans-politics (Baudrillard, 2002), the ‘sides’ in this war are defined in black and orange- terrorist versus hostage, and it is not always readily apparent who is assuming each role within the spectacle. It is not clear who is funding and training members of ISIS, and to explore this would be beyond the scope of this paper, but if we lift the veil of historical amnesia so necessary when starting the march to war we can see that the particular groups framed as the ‘enemy’ is constantly shifting, while new alliances, such as the US and Iran, are currently being formed in an attempt to contain the threat of the Islamic State. However, as a material instrument of war, visual media such as the Foley video and the subsequent media reporting allows for such complexities to be overlooked while resolutions for aerial bombing and stronger counter terror measures are swiftly ushered through parliament, as the spotlight is focused upon hunting figures such as ‘Jihadi John.’

But what would instead be a better response to deal with international terror? It is here that I will turn to the work of French philosopher Derrida, who in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th 2001 evoked the concept of auto-immunity: ‘that strange behaviour where a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, ‘itself’ works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its ‘own’ immunity’ (Derrida, interviewed by Borradori, 2003: 94) in order to analyse terrorism. As a metaphor that points towards immunity of the body in the biological sense, as well as that of the political body, it indicates that in trying to defend itself from a terrorist threat, which it identifies as something outside of itself, the body fails to see that the danger in fact lies within.

As WJT Mitchell points out in his ground breaking work ‘Cloning Terror’ (2011), the immune system learns to deal with attacks through “’clonal selection’, the production of antibodies that mirror the invading antigens and bonds with them, killing them’ (48). We can see this at work in the UK example, in a rash attempt to deal with the return of radicalised ISIS fighters, they propose to openly discriminate against its own citizens, based upon aspects of their identity, without just cause, which seems strikingly familiar to some of the tactics the extremists they are supposed to be challenging. We can also see these over reactive tactics at work in France under the current state of emergency. Since November 13th police have conducted two thousand and twenty raids, the majority being Muslim households, ransacked three mosques, detained almost three hundred individuals for questioning, while a six year old girl in Nice was severely injured by police shrapnel during a raid. (Goodman, Louati, 2015). Mitchell later goes on to stretch the metaphor further: as with the treatment of cancer cells, over reactive tactics when dealing with terrorism can in fact result in the multiplication of cancerous cells, and as we have seen time and time again, terror begets more terror.

Mitchell deftly illustrates that is a well known medical fact that when the nervous system is in a state of panic, the immune system does not function correctly, leading to knee jerk reactions that do not work in the body’s best interest, and so, I would argue that the Government’s response to the radicalisation of Muslim youth: banning membership to any groups deemed extreme, (‘Britain Proposes Anti-Extremism,’ 2014), and the swift implementation of counter-terror measures which discriminate against anyone travelling from Iraq and Syria, as well as the new counter terror measures in France, will only work to pour fuel on the fire. Instead, as Mitchell advocates (2011: 53), we need to reframe terrorism as a matter of public health and examine it in a clinical manner, without our judgement being clouded by fear or pandering towards xenophobic discourses. By doing so, we can implement preventive medicine, providing stronger institutions, greater representation of minorities, an improved education system and so on, so that the youth of Britain and the rest of Europe do not turn to radical ideology and feel the need to fight for the establishment of an Islamic State.


So it seems that the Foley video has been operationalised by the UK government to serve several functions. First, the video has been appropriated by the government as a way to introduce counter-terror measures which openly discriminate and infringe civil liberties and create the conditions for constant surveillance of the whole population. Secondly, it has been used to help establish who exactly should be filtered through these security mechanisms, by framing certain sectors of the population as a potential threat, and clearly marking distinctions between insiders and outsiders. As the power of the sovereign and the security apparatus is decentralised and diffused, it is the petty bureaucrats, those who work at Passport Control, or officers within London Met for example, who have to initially screen individuals and determine, without ‘the burden of proof’ whether they pose a threat to society. These decisions are shaped by historically and culturally positioned regimes of truth and so the resurrection of the figure of fanatical Muslim Other, ‘Jihadi John’ helped to re-establish, in the mind of the public, certain markers of difference as a danger, providing them with the tools to conduct sovereign violence (Tagma, 2009). Finally, in the face of a divided party, low support of government and the rise of UKIP, Cameron tactically utilised this moment in an attempt to unite British citizens against this Other, as well as garnering consent for air strikes in the Middle East. Although at the present moment, the government claims it does not want ‘to put boots on the ground’, perhaps Cameron feels that, as the Falklands was for Thatcher, another war could be the act needed to unite this divided kingdom, and regain the Party’s popularity. But be warned, Mr. Cameron, it is a dangerous game that you play.


One year on, and it seems, if one listens to the Government and media, that the threat of ISIS is greater than ever. Therefore we must question the effectiveness of the expansive and discriminatory counter terror measures which have been put in place over the past twelve months. Of course, the State would argue that the attacks in Paris only indicate that their reach did not extend far enough, and their response: to expand pervasive intelligence operations within Europe and increase military operations in Middle East. As to why Western governments are so determined to drop their bombs in The Middle East and lend support to divisive and exclusionary discourses is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps it is a case of short sightedness from our career politicians, blind to the lasting effects of their actions and merely appealing to populist sentiment as well as the demands of corporate donors in order to extend their term. Or perhaps there is a wider strategy, with more long term goals at play. But to answer these questions would be to descend into the murky world of ‘deep politics’ (Dale Scott, 1996), and that is a place I do not wish to delve, for today.

And what of Jihadi John? On the 12th of November it was announced with much military fanfare that Mohammed Emwazi had been ‘evaporated’ by a drone strike in Raqqa. However this news was soon overshadowed by the events in Paris the following day (Verkaik, 2015). Justice served, they say, in the name of peace. An act of murder, for our security. Interestingly, the attack was recorded and is readily available to watch online. One can observe through the lens of the drone, as it zooms in and settles upon the target. However, unlike the beheading videos, watching this video is not deemed a terrorist offence: a deft illustration of the double standards of our politicians, as well as the continued power of visual media as a weapon of war. We must ask the question, was it really necessary to kill Jihadi John? For surely those who wish to honour the much cherished values of ‘justice, égalité, fraternité ‘ should instead have put him on trial for his crimes.

Mohammed Emwazi may have been evaporated, but he was merely a symbolic figure: the ideas he embodied are diffuse and will continue to live on. Therefore we must not, in these dark times, allow ourselves to be captivated by xenophobic rhetoric, nor must we stand idly by as more bombs are dropped in our name. This War on Terror will only end when we begin to value all lives equally and joyously embrace our multicultural diversity, learning from and through these differences rather than trying to banish them. It is only then that we can hope to build a world which is free from terror, in all its guises.

1 For example, before being appointed Mayor, Boris was heard using the racial slur ‘picanniny’ to refer to those with black skin, (Watts, 2008) while more recent political gaffes includes claiming that the rise of UKIP is the result of a ‘peasants revolt,’ (Johnson, 2014b) and that children of radical Muslims should be put into social care (Johnson, 2014a)
2 Mos Maiorum was a European wide two week joint police operation taking place October 2014, aiming to clamp down upon illegal immigration and criminal networks.

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