The Angry, Disillusioned Music of the London Rapper Accused of Beheading James Foley

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."

YouTube/Rachel Hutter


Assad Is America's Strange Bedfellow and the Price Is 190,000 Dead

With its decision to bomb Islamic State militants in Iraq and funnel aid to the fragile Iraqi government in Baghdad, the United States has found itself with a set of strange bedfellows. Russia has been giving outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fighter jets for use against the extremists. Tehran has ramped up its military assistance to Baghdad. And in the strangest of bedfellows, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has been carrying out a sustained series of airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside both Iraq and Syria, in some ways doing Washington's work for it.

The unstated and unacknowledged marriage of convenience has left the Obama administration in a bind. The White House heralded this week's destruction of the last of Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles, an achievement that was only possible because he has remained in power long enough to ink the deal and ensure that it was carried out. With senior U.S. policymakers like Secretary of State John Kerry pledging to "destroy" the Islamic State, Washington is effectively gambling that Assad will be willing and able to continue hammering the group. If he were to fall, the militants would have access to an even larger arsenal of powerful weapons. Privately, some lawmakers and military officials concede that the United States needs Assad's help, even if Washington can't ask for it or coordinate its military campaign with him.

There is an enormous price tag for Assad's continued survival, however, and it was laid out in a stark and eye-opening U.N. report Friday. The Syrian civil war that erupted because of Assad's violent attacks on peaceful protesters and has included widespread human-rights abuses by his forces killed at least 191,369 people between March 2011 and April 2014, the report estimated.

But that figure all but certainly understates the number of deaths caused by the war. The report's authors adopted a meticulous, conservative approach, counting only deaths for which they had a full name and the date and location. In a conflict as violent as the Syrian civil war, bereft of stable government institutions and inundated by hyperviolent militias, the true toll is likely significantly higher. "The total 191,369 can be understood as a minimum bound of the number of killings between March 2011 and April 2014," the 25-page report says.

Its authors decline to speculate what the true total might be and note that statistical estimates will be required to determine such a figure. Indeed, the report hints at the enormous difficulties of carrying out such a task. "Well-known individuals who are victims of very public acts of violence, and victims who are killed in large groups tend to attract public attention, and they are therefore likely to be reported to one or more of these sources," the report states in discussing potential bias in its data. "By contrast, single individuals killed quietly in a remote corner of the country tend to be overlooked by media and documentation projects."

Of course, this brutality is unlikely to surprise anyone tracking the conflict, but recent events in Iraq threaten to rejigger the geopolitics of the conflict. Most importantly, the execution of the American journalist James Foley has provided the possible emotional catalyst for a sustained campaign to degrade the Islamic State. "[Islamic State] and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable," Kerry said earlier this week.

American officials are now contemplating the degree to which they are willing to commit the U.S. military to such a fight. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that such an effort would in all likelihood require American strikes in Syria as well as Iraq.

The actual U.S. commitment required to achieve the goal of destroying the Islamic State may be much higher. "If destroying ISIL becomes the near-term policy goal ... [that effort] will actually require years, direct military action on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border, tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars, and many more than 15,000 troops," Brian Fishman, a military analyst at the New America Foundation, wrote in a widely discussed article this week. "ISIL is an inherently resilient organization -- look how far they have come since getting 'rolled back' during the Surge in 2007 when 150,000 American troops were occupying the country."

On the Damascus side of the Syrian border, the alignment of U.S. interests with Bashar al-Assad's has become all too obvious. Islamic State militants have built up a stronghold in Raqqa province and appear headed for a head-on confrontation with the Syrian army. While Assad has been widely accused of allowing and indeed encouraging the growth of the Islamic State, he has now reached the point where he must soon challenge or contain the group before they can pose a direct challenge to his rule.

And therein lies the dilemma for the Obama. At one point, he might have used the secular Syrian opposition to strike at Islamic State fighters -- and at Assad. But Obama declined to arm more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, and now he finds himself fighting a psychopathic group of hard-line Islamists on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

Can he swallow the bitter pill of allying himself with one mass murderer to take on another? Probably not.