Jihadi Jim

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There's been a certain amount of discussion in the media about the accent of the ISIS spokesman on the video showing the mass beheading of Egyptian christians on a beach in Libya, e.g. on ABC News here. But the video itself has been kept off of the internet, for obvious reasons, which limits the opportunity for crowdsourcing perceptions of the audio. So here is his opening statement:

And the shorter statement that he makes after the gruesome beheadings:

It's obvious that the speaker is a native speaker of some other language, who learned English in an American context. What about his pronunciation of Arabic? One Arabic scholar expressed the opinion that "the Arabic pronunciation sounds native to me, and his English accent sounds typically Arabic", adding that:

The Arabic phrases don't really give you much to go on, but I'd make a cautious judgment that whoever this guy is, he's not from Libya. This is because: 

(1) In most of the English, he pronounces voiced interdentals as stops, whereas this sound is distinctively present in Libyan and Tunisian (also Bedouin Gulf) Arabic. He does, however, use something like an emphatic voiced interdental in 'wi[th] your blood', so maybe this is reading too much into it.

(2) In 'Dabiq', he clearly pronounces the q as a (perhaps glottalized?) uvular stop, which is typical of about half of all Arabic dialects, but not Bedouin-type dialects (including all of Libya) or urban Egyptian/some urban coastal Levantine. That said, it's the standard pronunciation, so this may explain it without any dialect. If the uvular stop is glottalized, and it does sound pretty far back, it might point to a Levantine or Palestinian origin.

His vowels also have some noticeable features, which also are vaguely suggestive of a Levantine accent. The long /a/ (in 'Sham', 'Dabiq', 'Osama', and 'Laden') is on the fronted side, and there is moderate imala, raising of final /a/, to about epsilon in 'jizy[a]'. The stereotypical Shami dialect has /e/ or /i/ there, and imala is also found to some degree in other dialects, but it's most widespread in the Levant. Iraqi Arabic also tends to have a further back long /a/ (at least Baghdadi), so he's probably not from Iraq.

Another knowledgeable person expressed the opinion that the speaker is a native speaker of Arabic, probably from the Gulf.



  1. GeorgeW said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 6:44 am

    I cannot hear any sound on the first recording above and the second has a lot of background noise.

    [(myl) Try headphones, and check your computer's audio system otherwise. The background noise is the surf.]

    In hearing his statements previously in TV clips, I had never noticed a clear Arabic accent. It is almost for sure not Egyptian.

    BTW, isn't he know as "Jihadi John?" Maybe, you decided to give him a nickname?

    [(myl) There are different spokemen in differerent videos. I've heard at least three. "Jihadi John" has a British accent. This is a different guy.]

  2. richardelguru said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 6:48 am

    I think they are two different vile men. The 'John' one being a UK citizen.

  3. GeorgeW said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 7:01 am

    "I think they are two different vile men. The 'John' one being a UK citizen."

    Ahh. Thanks. I did a quick, uncaffeinated reading. Please ignore my comments above.

    (MYL: The audio problem must have been my computer, I hear it fine now).

  4. Thorin said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 8:41 am

    I'm Albanian myself, and living in the US I've known other Albanians to have an accent similar to that – so my guess is he could either be from the Balkans, or he's Middle Eastern but was educated in the US for some time.

  5. Ken said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 11:28 am

    Articles like this one,


    say they used 'voice-recognition software'. Quote:

    "The FBI, Britain's MI5 and other intelligence agencies used a combination of voice-recognition software, interviews with former hostages and on-the-ground research in London to build up a profile of the man now revealed to be Mohammed Emwazi."

    I'm sure they could have a system that tries to classify accents and maybe they try to do voice-identification from known samples that they have, but does anyone here think any software could be more useful than having a few experts listening to it?

    [(myl) Again, the article that you cite is talking about a different guy. But speaker recognition software (which I think is what they mean by "voice recognition software") is pretty good these days.]

  6. xyzzyva said,

    March 1, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

    Am I the only one who hears his [North] American features as Canadian?

    If I were to guess, he sounds like he was immersed in English fairly young, perhaps before age 10 or so. If I were to find out he was native-born North American but grew up in an ethnic enclave neighborhood, I wouldn't be surprised. Except that I'm not aware of any large enclaves densely "ethnic" enough which would also be Muslim—unlike Spanish, various Asian languages, etc.

  7. Thorin said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 7:55 am

    Dearborn, Michigan is the largest enclave of ethnic Middle Easterners in the United States that I'm aware of.

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