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2014 VICE News Awards: Monster of the Year — Jihadi John

The Islamic State's unofficial spokesperson's grim brutality and familiar London accent marked him out as a haunting antihero, a symbol of the group's appeal to disenfranchised youth seeking reinvention.

by Ben Bryant
Dec 29 2014, 2:55pm

Image via VICE News

Check out more of the 2014 VICE News Awards here.

The global league of bad guys has been dominated for the past couple of years by men in suits. Bashar al-Assad's grim flair for mass murder is exercised by a man who looks and sounds like a jaded insurance underwriter. Putin, the world's leading dolphin-cuddling, land-grabbing, enfeeblingly sleepy dictator, has had a year so effective at inviting worldwide antipathy, he's facing bankruptcy. A piercing stare, crisp shirt and evasive manner are now the calling cards of the world's absolute worst.

So the breakthrough monster of 2014 has to be "Jihadi John," a jarringly transparent killer who dominated the news cycle after a video of him beheading photojournalist James Foley appeared online in August, and he quickly became synonymous with the horrors committed by the Islamic State (IS) . Lines like "As your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike necks of your people" are a lot easier to grasp than Putin's excuses for the annexation of Crimea. The poster boy for IS has been on every news channel, every website, in every newspaper. And with a $10 million bounty on his head, he is wanted by everybody — for all the wrong reasons.

Before Jihadi John became a household name in late August, it was known that Europeans were traveling to Syria. There had been stories about Britons fighting Assad and pictures of militants in bright white trainers, as if Reebok Classics are the preferred footwear of the caliphate. But it hadn't really hit home that this was not just a rebel insurgency, but a global movement.

So when Jihadi John first appeared in the Foley video, he was just another knife-waving rebel in a black balaclava — barbaric and distant. That was until he opened his mouth.

The Foley video doesn't show his execution, but it was still one of the most terrifying and memorable of IS's dispatches this year, and that is in part because of how disorienting it was when the man on screen started speaking like a Londoner.

Nobody knew who he was, so newspapers clumsily dubbed him "Jihadi John" and subsequently linked him to three different people. But his mystique only helped prop him up. To a certain kind of disenfranchised, disaffected youth he is clearly an inspiration of sorts. A haunting figure and a symbol of the Islamic State's potential for youthful reinvention, dressed in black. He might be dead or he might be several people — but that's beside the point. 

A generation familiar with the anonymity and collectivism championed by the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, and Anonymous would not have a problem with not knowing John's real name. And while it's a little condescending to suggest that anybody going out to Syria is doing it for less than ideological reasons, it would be rash to overlook the appeal of knowing there are people like you there.

The transformative appeal of IS has been pretty well documented in other ways. When you look at the pictures of 20-year-old Junaid Hussain arriving at court on hacking charges in 2012, all fretful-eyed and hamster-cheeked, in a limp grey suit, he does not cut an impressive figure. Contrast that with the brooding, grainy, Instagrammed shot of Hussain staring down the sight of a rifle earlier this year. For someone with something to prove and nothing to lose, that's like looking at before and after gym transformations.

In one of his tweets Hussain wrote: "You can sit at home and play Call of Duty or you can come here and respond to the real call of duty." Surely nobody actually thinks fighting in Syria is like playing Call of Duty — but there is something of a rites-of-passage metamorphosis going on here. The Islamic State: where teen hackers can become warriors.

For his part, Jihadi John is not just a naked killer; he is a recognizably British killer. And the more people who find inspiration in his listless speeches and stomach-churning atrocities, the more soul-searching a nation will have to do.

Best of VICE News 2014: The Islamic State. Watch it here.