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LONDON — While the identification of “Jihadi John” is seen by authorities as unhelpful, experts said Thursday that putting the ISIS executioner’s name in the public domain could weaken ISIS propaganda and might even help track down one of the world’s most-wanted men.
Police and government officials refused to confirm reports Thursday naming Kuwaiti-born Londoner Mohammed Emwazi as the knife-wielding ISIS killer of at least four hostages, including two Americans.
The mystery figure with a distinctive British accent has been one of the world’s most hunted militants since he first appeared in August in an ISIS video heralding the grisly murder of U.S. journalist James Foley.
The FBI and other agencies have claimed to have known Emwazi’s identity since September, but he remains at large — most likely in Syria, possibly in Iraq. Neither the FBI nor British intelligence officials ever named him publicly.
"An interesting impact is whether he will still wear a mask next time he appears in a video"
British Prime Minister David Cameron “would be concerned about information being put into the public domain at any time that might jeopardize ongoing police or security investigations,” a British government spokeswoman told reporters on Thursday.
Metropolitan Police counterterrorism commander Richard Walton said Thursday that detectives had previously asked media outlets not to report Emwazi’s identity “on the basis that life is at risk.” ISIS is still holding at least one British hostage, journalist John Cantlie.
Afzal Ashraf, a consultant fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, said the apparent leak of Emwazi’s identity could impair the ability of agencies to gather intelligence on other Western jihadists fighting alongside ISIS.
“Wherever this information has come from, intelligence services and the police will be taking mitigating measures to try and minimize any potential loss to their intelligence-gathering,” he said, adding that Britain’s MI5 spy agency would view Emwazi’s naming as “unhelpful.”
A U.S. intelligence official confirmed to NBC News on Thursday that the "Jihadi John" is Mohammed Emwazi. The militant's identity was first reported by The Washington Post, which cited "friends and others with familiar with his case." The BBC also named Emwazi without citing sources.
Still, he said that the release of a name may make it easier to locate the jihadist on the ground.
“An interesting impact is whether he will still wear a mask next time he appears in a video. If there is a soon a photograph of him in circulation, then he will be feeling as uncomfortable about this development as the police and security services,” Ashraf added.
Emwazi's unmasking could dent the effectiveness of the beheading videos as an ISIS propaganda tool, according to Ross Frenett, director of the Against Violent Extremism Network, part of the London-based Institute of Strategic Dialogue.
“This will demystify Jihadi John, make him less of a scary character,” he said. “He has become almost like a super-villain character, a hero in the eyes of jihadists. Knowing who he really is strips away some of his power.”
He added: “This guy’s picture appears at the top of so many social media pages — many more than (ISIS leader Abu Bakr) al-Baghdadi, for sure — and the fact that we now know all about him will undermine his mystique.”
There are likely also to be questions about whether Britain's colleges, previously identified as a breeding ground for radicalization, have done enough to prevent the spread of extremism.
The University of Westminster, where Emwazi studied until 2009, said Thursday it was "shocked and sickened" by the realization that a militant could have been in its halls.
"We have students from 150 countries, and their safety is of paramount concern. With other universities in London, we are working to implement the government's Prevent strategy to tackle extremism," it said in a statement.
"This will demystify Jihadi John, make him less of a scary character"
The International Center for the Study of Radicalization at London’s Kings College said the case also had lessons about Western ISIS sympathizers.
“‘Jihadi John’ is not special in the sense that all the foreign fighters have tried to hide their identity by using pseudonyms or literally by masking themselves,” it said in a statement Thursday.
“The fact that ‘Jihadi John’ has been unveiled in this manner demonstrates that whatever efforts are made, the ability to mask one’s identity is limited or in fact impossible, and their true identities will eventually be revealed."
"This demonstrates what we have long said about radicalization, that it is not something driven by poverty or social deprivation. Ideology clearly plays a big role in motivating some men to participate in jihadist causes. British fighters have clearly demonstrated that they are not in this conflict to take a back seat. They are full participants in this war, operating as suicide bombers, hostage takers and executioners.”