Is New ISIS Spokesman A Brit Who Used To Sell Bouncy Castles?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
ISIS has a new mast spokesman with a British accent. A video features him taunting British Prime Minster David Cameron and threatening Britain. And this is followed by the purported execution of five men ISIS claims were spying for the U.K. U.S. sources say they've been told by British officials that the man is originally from London and his name is Siddhartha Dhar. To learn more about him and why he might've been selected as the newest ISIS figurehead, we turn to Erin Marie Saltman, who specializes in radicalization and violent extremism. She's a senior researcher for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London.
ERIN MARIE SALTMAN: Good morning.
GREENE: So what exactly do we know about this man Siddhartha Dhar?
SALTMAN: We know that he currently goes by the name Abu Rumaysah. He left for the territory to join Islamic State in September 2014, and he left actually two days after he was released on bail. He had already been arrested by U.K. authorities for, quote-unquote, "encouraging terrorism," as he was related to another band group called al-Muhajiroun who operates in the U.K. So it has been quite a shock that he was even able to make it out to the territory in the first place.
GREENE: Wow. And potentially, I guess, a real embarrassment for the British government if they let him go.
SALTMAN: Well, this has been an issue where he actually took a bus from London to Paris it is thought. And he took a plane from France.
GREENE: And you're saying made his way across the border into Syria or Iraq?
SALTMAN: Into, we think, Iraq. So it does also bring up questions of security information sharing between borders and how much we communicate with other countries about who is on our no-fly lists.
GREENE: Can you explain why ISIS might especially want a Western figure like him to become a star in these pretty horrific videos?
SALTMAN: When we look at the background of who Siddhartha Dhar actually is, it's less about him as a really important figure for Islamic State other than the fact that he is British, he is media savvy - he did media even before he went out to join Islamic State - and he has this British accent. So it really relates the message directly to Western audiences. We are much more willing to turn off from the message if we can't relate to the person. But the fact that this is a British citizen speaking to us condemning the U.K., condemning the West, we can't ignore it.
GREENE: It's scarier, you're saying, if you're a Westerner and you see someone with a familiar accent, you know, in a group like that.
SALTMAN: It brings the threat home, whereas perhaps we can ignore things if they seem far away. The fact that we have a face and a name that resonates at home to us, it means that all of a sudden the greater public feels less at ease. It forces us to pay attention to this threat.
GREENE: You know, I know the media have been making a point that this man was a former salesman from East London selling moon bounces for children. I mean, it's almost like they've been turning him into a buffoon in a way, which you wonder if that's what people think, you know, he's the kind of person who would be ISIS material.
SALTMAN: Well, ISIS has been working with everything that they have. Obviously the fact that in his former career he was selling bouncy castles or renting them out to parties, that's not something they would probably want to hype up internally. So I think that's something media has latched onto to almost discredit this figure, to make him less of a threat seeming to the greater public. But this sort of video is less about recruitment and propaganda. This sort of video really is aimed at causing a symmetrical threat, where in the face of them actually losing territory on the ground militaristically right now, one video like this makes us fear them more and makes us feel like they have more power than perhaps they do.
GREENE: So this could be a sign of ISIS feeling like it's losing ground and getting a little desperate?
SALTMAN: Well, we do know that they have lost quite a bit of territory in the last few months. We know they're currently on the back foot, strategically, on the ground with military forces and with the international airstrikes against them. And so videos like this really flip the coin. It makes the general public continue to fear them, especially with the addition of such a young child, a 5-year-old child, within that same video who's also conveying a threat. All of a sudden, it makes us remember what a brutal and horrific group this is.
GREENE: OK. We've been talking to Erin Marie Saltman who's with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, speaking to us from London.
Thanks very much.
SALTMAN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.