The American leader in the ISIS hierarchy

Now I thought had enough data to narrow down his identity: a philologically inclined Cretan jihadist convert not just to Islam but to Dhahirism, a minuscule legal school. The list of candidates could not be long.

Many converts choose Arabic names that are the equivalent of their birth names. Yahya is Arabic for John, in English, or Ioannis in Greek, so I began searching online for Dhahiris with these names. In a German-language jihadist chatroom, I found a reference to “Ioannis Georgilakis,” and here the trail began to sizzle under my feet. Georgilakis’s Facebook page showed photos of the same hirsute young man with glasses, dressed in Muslim garments and playing with his kids.

As I looked at his Facebook page, I began to wonder whether the Greek was an affectation. Many of his Facebook friends were English speakers, and few were Greek. Georgilakis isn’t an especially common surname, and given Yahya’s apparent creativity in self-naming, I tried a few permutations, including the English John, and the vanilla, non-Cretan Greek version of Georgilakis, which would be Georgelas.

One of the first hits on Google for John Georgelas was an August 15, 2006, press release from the Department of Justice. “Supporter of Pro-Jihad Website Sentenced to 34 Months,” it crowed. At the time of his conviction, he lived in North Texas, near Plano, 20 minutes’ drive from the house where I grew up.