Plaudits and media attention deservedly showered the October 2019 U.S. Special Forces commando raid that finally killed the most wanted man on Earth, the Islamic State's supreme leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But instead of plaudits and lavish coverage, an obscuring fog of mystery rose from the very next day's U.S. Hellfire missile strike that killed al-Baghdadi's supposed successor and chief media propagandist not far away, a man identified only as "Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir."
As I and others have reported, ISIS's last known chief propagandist, a fellow who went by a very similar nom de guerre as the dead ISIS propagandist, was believed to be an American-born Texas convert named John Thomas Georgelas. In 2016, he was thought to have become the Islamic State's highest-ranking American. His ex-wife and four children still live in the Dallas exurb of Plano.
Was the Abu al-Hassan al-Muhaijir killed in October's second operation this very same Most Wanted of American citizens who reportedly went by the name Abu Hassan al-Muhaijir? Oddly, the answer remains publicly unknown, and the government hasn't said one way or another.
The whereabouts of Georgelas has stood as an enduring mystery since The Atlantic published a March 2017 story by author Graeme Wood tracing his life's trajectory into ISIS and then up its food chain through the terrorist group's influential propaganda, recruiting, and media arm. It was Wood's reporting that first tagged Georgelas as "the Islamic State's leading producer of high-end English-language propaganda." Clues had emerged by then, Wood reported, "that he may be much more."
Wood went on to consider the "extraordinary possibility" that Georgelas was the "Abu Hassan al-Muhajir" that ISIS announced on December 5, 2016 would succeed his boss in the propaganda division, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, shortly after a U.S. drone strike killed him. Georgelas had been using a very similar alias among others at the time, Wood pointed out, even though he was unsure his original identification of the name as belonging to one Texas man was more than speculative. Georgelas most definitely worked in the propaganda division in a position of influence.
Even if Georgelas wasn't the man killed in the day-after airstrike, the question for a separate fascinating story remains: what ever became of him? Did Georgelas once hold the "Abu Hassan al-Muhaijir" alias and it was passed along after he had stopped using it?
Don't Ask, Don't Tell
Most major American media outlets have provided exhaustive details about the raid on al-Baghdadi's compound, right down to how an informant stole the terrorist mastermind's underwear for the DNA and the anthropomorphized heroics of a military dog. But no one seems to be asking for the basics about Abu Hassan al-Muhaijir, like, um, who he really was and where he was born. A simple confirmation of his country of birth would seem to rule out that the Texan Georgelas was the one killed that day in late October.
Instead, the U.S. government has quite purposefully gone dark about the second historically significant operation, made easier by the fact that the U.S. media appears wholly uninterested.
Nearly six weeks since the missile strike, I lodged some inquiries. The U.S. State Department this week deflected my request for basic biographical information about Abu Hassan al-Muhaijir. A spokesperson wrote back saying, "We have no additional information to provide" beyond what was said in a November 14 press briefing by Special Representative James Jeffrey and Ambassador Nathan Sales. A point-blank question, "Any chance this Abu Hassan is the Texan named John Georgelas?" yielded the same response.
My similar phone and email requests to the Pentagon and Central Command in Tampa, Florida went unanswered by press time.
Georgelas's former ISIS bride in Texas and mother of his four children, Tania Joya, told Breitbart News in early November after the airstrike that she had "no definitive proof" Georgelas was dead. She would be in the know because, as part of a deal for the British citizen to reside in the United States after returning from Syria, Joya has worked closely with the FBI and presumably retains a pipeline to information about the fate of her four children's father.
American intelligence agencies surely know everything there is to know about the dead man they tracked and killed. There well may be understandable reasons for the information black-out having nothing to do with Georgelas; providing details about the dead man's real identity could compromise ongoing hunt-and-kill operations in some way we can't easily fathom from the outside.
But the blackout leaves no choice but also to entertain a different disincentive. A positive identification of the dead man as Georgelas would no doubt be received loaded with potential public and legal interest of the sort that arose in 2011 when the CIA launched hellfire missiles that killed the American al-Qaeda jihadist Anwar al Awlauki and four American jihadists with him in Yemen. The killings spawned a nationwide argument and litigation (which failed in 2014) challenging whether the Obama administration had a right to order the extra-judicial killing of American citizens abroad rather than apprehending them for trial at home.
Even beyond legitimate public legal and policy interests, a basic human-interest curiosity must be acknowledged as to whether this enigmatic Texan is alive carrying on the jihad from a position of authority somewhere, or was killed long before the October operations.
It is also true that facts tying Georgelas to the dead propagandist or al-Baghdadi in his final desperate days in a fortified hideout would stoke red-hot public and media and Hollywood fascination with the Georgelas story. The spokesman identified as Abu Hassan al-Muhaijir had married al-Baghdadi's daughter.
Room for Doubt: An Interview with Graeme Wood
It is often said that from the absence of information will always rise unhelpful gossip and speculation. That seems to be the unfortunate case here, and probably unnecessary. But it's all we can do at the moment.
In a recent telephone interview, The Atlantic's Wood told me the first thing that came to mind when he heard news of the second American strike, like mine, was: Did Georgelas just get killed? Wood said he now doubts that Georgelas and the Hellfire-killed propagandist were the same person. But he too can't seem to get the information he needs to know for sure.
'There's no confirmed evidence that (Georgelas) is still alive, which means nothing.'
For one thing, after the October operations, ISIS issued a statement saying the dead man was Saudi-born. However, Wood also allowed for the possibility that ISIS, in asserting this, was engaging in simple operational security mendacity to keep western intelligence agencies guessing about who its chief propagandists really are. People in that job, after all, tend to get killed.
Another reason to doubt has to do with subtle linguistic differences between the name Georgelas chose and the name of the dead ISIS propagandist. They're not quite the same, with a linguistically significant "al-" in part of one name but not in the other.
A purported tape-recorded message from al-Muhajir several months ago, compared to older recordings of Georgelas was definitely not Georgelas, Wood said, although Wood allowed that ISIS frequently switches people and names to sow confusion about speaker identity.
There were unconfirmed ISIS reports that Georgelas was killed separately in fighting a couple of years ago too. Maybe that's true or was a ruse to help him on the run. But the family in Dallas evidently has been told nothing. Bottom line: "There's no confirmed evidence that he (Georgelas) is still alive, which means nothing," Wood said. "The only people who have claimed that Georgelas is dead are themselves untrustworthy.
"Proof of death may never come," he continued. "Regrettably, that means no closure for his family or for the many people concerned that an intelligent, dangerous American is still at large and determined to attack America."
Government agencies in the know should regard all of the above as a standing journalistic inquiry.
Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. He previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.