The British intelligence community has been racing to identify a man who appears in a video of James Foley’s beheading by an Islamic State militant who speaks with a distinctive London accent. According to British media outlets, they have a "key suspect": Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, a 23-year-old British-Egyptian rapper from west London.
Bary reportedly traveled to Syria last year to join radical Islamist fighters. From there, his militant career appears to have taken a grisly turn. In August, he tweeted a photograph of himself holding a severed head. "Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him," he captioned the photo. With his alleged appearance in Foley’s execution video, Bary has attained a measure of jihadi infamy.
Whether the American journalist’s executioner was Bary is still unclear, but the former rapper is a fascinating figure who grew up swathed in Islamist politics. He is the son of Adel Abdel Bary, an alleged member of Islamic Jihad who was extradited from England to the United States in 2012 on charges related to his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
British authorities couldn’t secure a conviction of the elder Bary on similar charges. U.S. prosecutors charged him with conspiring with Ayman al-Zawahiri to attack the embassies and after a lengthy legal battle secured his extradition. His trial is expected to begin in November.
According to a 2013 interview with Abdel-Majed mother in the Guardian, the elder Bary spent large parts of his son’s childhood in jail, fighting terror-related prosecutions brought first by British authorities and then the United States. His mother, Ragaa, describes frequent visits to jail during which her children would play with their imprisoned father. Ragaa struggled to make ends meet and eventually pursued an education as a dressmaker. "Twenty years of all this politics has been too much. I have to live my kids’ lives," she told the Guardian.
Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary’s mother appears to have been a signal influence on his life and is repeatedly mentioned in his music. Indeed, with Bary now likely in Syria, apparently pursuing a life of ultraviolent jihad, his music provides a partial picture of the life he left behind in Britain. His music touches on familiar themes of growing up amid poverty and as an outsider in British society. He raps about his father’s incarceration and his mother’s struggle to provide for her family. He may at one point have struggled with a drug addiction. As twisted as the choice may be, it is not surprising that this young man may have embraced a life of nihilistic violence.
In "The Beginning" — set to the unimaginative but excellent choice of "Intro" by the xx — he raps: "I remember getting no nice gifts/ I rose/ From the rubble in the cold night shifts." He reminisces about his father’s arrest and the anger it inspired:
Gimme that nine and I’ll cock it for my partners.
Gimme the pride and I’ll honor it like my father.
I swear the day they came and took my dad I could’ve killed a couple too.
And I wouldn’t have looked back.
Imagine back then I was only six.
Just picture what I’ll do now with a loaded stick.
Toward the song’s end, Bary dwells on his mother. "Shouts to my mother/ cause I seen her raising eight kids/ You always knew what’s best for me/ I hope I die before I see you rest in peace./ Calm; yeah, I’m calm."
In "Bar Session," Bary — or L Jinny — raps about drug dealing. Again, his mother appears — "I’m trying to get my mother in that bigger home." The rap speaks of disillusionment and wonder at how the song’s character has arrived at a life of selling drugs and its emptiness. L Jinny then hints that he may have found something more meaningful: "Soon I’ll be leaving/ Give me something to believe in." It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to read that as an allusion to his decision to wage jihad in Syria.
In the first track in the video below, L Jinny once more references his tumultuous family life. "And now they want to send my family back to Egypt/ Already feeling sea sick/ Gotta get that peace quick …. On top of that, the pops is doing life without remand/ I gotta keep my calm/ Can’t write with that shit on./ It’s hard to focus on the future with a damaged past./ And still I try to count my blessings and I thank Allah."
On the second track, wrapped up in a clunker of a metaphor, L Jinny references the violence he now stands accused of committing. "You can tell from my voice that I been cold, like a sore throat./ Sign of swagger, with the dagger we still sword throats."
If the embrace of jihad can be seen as an intellectual attempt to reject the chaos of modernity in favor of a simpler, Manichean fundamentalism, then L Jinny might have been searching for his ideological home for quite some time: "I need something with a deeper meaning, food for thought/ Something that will keep me eating," he says in "Overdose."
On "Dreamer," L Jinny appears alongside the rapper Tabanacle on a track about a pair of guys not going anywhere any time soon. "I remember when I used to be young/I had big dreams; I wasn’t just your usual thug/ A decade down the line, still in the same position/ Now only hope I have is music or drugs."
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.| The Complex |