Updated January 25, 2017
Tracking John Georgelas, the Texan jihadi now deep in the heart of the Islamic State, has been for me a linguistic journey as well as a physical one, as I have pursued elements of his biography in four countries and as many languages. Georgelas crafts his identities with great linguistic care. On one site he calls himself “Yahya Abu Hassan Ibn Sharaf.” The “Yahya” is clear enough—the Arabic equivalent of “John”—and “Hassan” is his first-born: John, father of Hassan. But what of “Ibn Sharaf”? It’s a patronymic, “son of Sharaf.” Sharaf? Georgelas’s father is Tim, from the Greek τιμή, meaning “honor.” He translates the Greek to the Arabic “Sharaf,” from the root for honor. John, father of Hassan and son of Tim. (Not bad for a community-college dropout.)
The Georgelas saga that I described has ended with the arrival of a new figure on the Islamic State’s propaganda scene—one Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir—whose name is nearly the same as a Georgelas alias, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir. (Al-Muhajir means “the immigrant.” Georgelas has also gone by other epithets, including al-Bahrumi—the Mediterranean—and al-Ghurabi, the Stranger.) This new Abu al-Hasan occupies the former position of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, arguably the most powerful figure in the Islamic State until his assassination in August.
The names were similar enough to raise my eyebrows by an inch or two. The eyebrows have since descended somewhat through the advice of Cole Bunzel, a scholar at Princeton who has guided me through Arabic linguistic thickets before. He points out that Abu al-Hasan and Abu Hasan are interchangeable, but Abu Hassan—Georgelas’s typical spelling—is distinct and doesn't normally take an “al-.” The names are one letter apart (comparable perhaps to “John” versus “Jon”), but still not identical.
It is unlike Georgelas to be sloppy in matters of language and orthography. So I must register further doubts, beyond those in the original story, about the likelihood that this Texas stoner has risen to the very highest office in the Islamic State. There is no doubt that he has already positioned himself as an authority there, one of the official and canonical voices of the group. And he remains the most important and prominent American in the Islamic State. But his old friend, the late Adnani, is more likely to have been succeeded by someone else, and Georgelas, if he survives, may still have a greater terrestrial office to which he can aspire.