British Man Behind ISIS Killings and Hostage Beheadings Identified
A British man has been identified as the knife-wielding militant who appears in Islamic State videos claiming responsibility for the beheadings of US, British and other hostages.
The Guardian has confirmed that Mohammad Emwazi, a 26-year-old west Londoner and university graduate, is the militant. He had been given the moniker “Jihadi John” by a group of his hostages, who described him as part of an Isis cell they named “the Beatles”.
The name was first published by the Washington Post on Thursday morning. Strenuous efforts appear to have been made to cover his tracks on the internet.
Emwazi arrived in Britain as a young boy, aged six, after being born in Kuwait. He grew up in west London and was known as a polite, mild-mannered young man.
Those who knew him say he had a penchant for wearing stylish clothes but remained an observant Muslim. The Post describes him as bearded and careful not to make eye contact with women.
He graduated in 2009 in information technology and is also fluent in Arabic. However, instead of building a computing career, Emwazi ended up on MI5’s radar.
Over the course of a year he claimed to have been harassed and intimidated by the security services. In 2010, he went as far as to file a complaint with the Independent Police Complaints Commission over his treatment.
A US government official confirmed Emwazi’s identity to the Guardian, after the British security services declined to confirm or deny that he was the knife-wielding killer. Downing Street also refused to comment on the reports.
David Cameron’s deputy spokeswoman said: “We cannot confirm or deny anything in relation to intelligence. The point the prime minister would make, which we have said since we have seen the awful actions of these Isil [Isis] terrorists, is that we are absolutely determined to bring the perpetrators to justice. The police and security agencies have been working hard to do that.”
Questioned about whether Emwazi was known to the security services, she said: “I’m not going to get into the details of an ongoing police and security investigation.”
Asked if Downing Street had any concerns about Emwazi being named, she said: “The point I would make is that there is an ongoing investigation. It is absolutely right that we allow the police and security agencies to do all they can to bring those responsible to justice and help keep British people safe.”
The intelligence agencies are unable to comment on the claim that it tried to recruit Emwazi, in part because the killings of the hostages by his grouping are still a matter of police investigation. But the parliamentary intelligence and security committee report into the Lee Rigby murder sets out the agency’s position.
The intelligence committee wrote: “Agents are one of MI5’s most important sources of intelligence. MI5 often approaches subjects of interest (SoIs) in order to try to recruit them as agents.”
According to people who have moved in jihadi circles in west London, Emwazi began to be noticed about five or six years ago. “That’s when he emerged, so to speak,” said one. Among his associates at that time was Bilal el-Berjawi, a Londoner of Lebanese origin who was killed by a drone strike in Somalia three years ago.
In August 2009, Emwazi went on a supposed safari holiday to Tanzania, but on landing in the capital he said he was detained by police and held overnight.
In a series of statements to Cage, which campaigns on behalf of communities affected by the “war on terror”, Emwazi alleged he was threatened with beatings by gun-toting members of Tanzania’s security forces.
After being refused entry to Tanzania he was put on a plane to the Netherlands, where he said he was questioned by an MI5 agent named “Nick” who accused him of wanting to fight in Somalia, where the militant group al-Shabaab operates in the southern part of the country.
The Independent in 2010 profiled a number of similar incidents and also identified Emwazi as Muhammad ibn Muazzam.
In emails seen by the Guardian, Emwazi said the British agent knew “everything about me; where I lived, what I did, and the people I hang around with”. He is then claimed to have tried to “turn” Emwazi, asking: “Why don’t you work for us?” When he refused, MI5 said “life would be harder for you”.
Emwazi remained entangled with MI5. Over the next few months, he was again detained and interrogated.
Emwazi decided to move to Kuwait, where he landed a job working for a computer company, according to the emails he wrote to Cage. He came back to London twice, the second time to finalise his wedding plans to a woman in Kuwait.
In June 2010, however, counter-terrorism officials in Britain detained him again – this time fingerprinting him and searching his belongings. When he tried to fly back to Kuwait the next day, he was prevented from doing so. In his final interrogation he claimed to have been strangled by a police officer.
Emwazi is thought to have been incensed by the decision to bar him from Kuwait, the land of his birth, and where he had worked and planned to marry.
“I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started,” he wrote in a June 2010 email to Cage. But now “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned & controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace & country, Kuwait.”Cage said that it spent two years communicating with Emwazi, in which he highlighted interference by the UK security agencies as he sought to find redress within the system.
He told the organisation: “I have been trying to find out the reason for my refused visa issue from my home country Kuwait, and a way to solve the issue. So through my friends in Kuwait, it has been said to me that Kuwait has no problem with me entering, and the reason for my refusal is simply because the UK agents have told them to not let me in!!”
Asim Qureshi, research director of Cage, said there were parallels with the killer of Lee Rigby, Michael Adebolajo.
“Suffocating domestic policies aimed at turning a person into an informant but which prevent a person from fulfilling their basic life needs would have left a lasting impression on Emwazi. He desperately wanted to use the system to change his situation, but the system ultimately rejected him.”
But a leading researcher into counter-terrorism and intelligence, Shashank Joshi of the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said it was MI5’s job to recruit informers.
He rejected the Cage narrative of radicalisation by the British state as simplistic. “It seems to me MI5 did a reasonable job,” Joshi said. MI5 had enough evidence to show Emwazi was associated with radical elements early on and had good reason to watch him, he said.
Close friends of Emwazi told the Post that his situation in London had made him desperate to leave the country. It is unclear exactly when he reached Syria or how.
One friend said he believed Emwazi wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia to teach English in 2012 but was unsuccessful. He left soon afterwards, the friend said.
“He was upset and wanted to start a life elsewhere,” one of the friends said. “He at some stage reached the point where he was really just trying to find another way to get out.”
By 2012 he told friends he wanted to go to Syria. Almost all advised him against it.
Before he was named publicly, web searches for his name brought up only results from the electoral roll, listing various west London addresses where he lived with his family.
Similarly, his brother’s Facebook account has been deleted, as have various social media, and UK LinkedIn profiles connected to his sister, though she now appears to have a new, Kuwait-based LinkedIn page.
Emwazi and Berjawi were members of a loose-knit group of young Muslims from the North Kensington area of west London who attended the same mosques and played five-a-side football together.
Another member of the group, Mohamed Sakr, was killed in a drone strike in Somalia a few weeks after Berjawi. Although born in the UK, he was a dual UK-Egyptian national; the UK government had stripped him of his British citizenship shortly before he was killed.
Some members of this group were investigated by MI5 because of their links with the men who attempted to carry out a wave of bombings on London’s underground train network on 21 July 2005.
Others came to the attention of the authorities in other ways. Mohammed Ezzouek, for example, who attended North Westminster Community school with Berjawi, was interrogated by British intelligence officers after a trip to Somalia in 2006; another schoolmate, Tariq al-Daour, has been released from jail after serving a sentence for inciting terrorism.