'Jihadi John': How much did the security services know about him?

What turned Emwazi into a fighter, and what role the security services played, is now a matter of accusations and recriminations

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A hooded jihadist threatening carnage in an English accent next to a soon-to-be beheaded captive: it was hardly surprising that Jihadi John would become a terrorist celebrity in the internet age.

The fact that some of the victims were known to us journalists – and were friends – helped project the image of England’s very own malevolent murderer, glorying in the bloodbath of Syria and Iraq.

Mohammed Emwazi is not, of course, an isolated UK export to the Middle-Eastern battlefield, just the most infamous one. More than 600 young Muslims from these isles are estimated to have undertaken the journey, joining several thousand others from Western Europe and North America seeking jihad.

But what turned Emwazi – a boy from a lower middle-class family, a graduate of a London college – into a fighter with the nom-de-guerre of Abu Abdullah al-Britani, and what role the security services played, is now a matter of accusations and recriminations. According to his friends he was driven to embrace holy violence due to a number of factors: pressure from MI5 and the police to become an informant; being barred from going to Kuwait, the place of his birth, to find a wife and a job; and an overall feeling of victimization as a Muslim.

The main proponent of this argument is the advocacy group Cage, who helped identify 26-year-old Emwazi to newspapers and then spent the day in the limelight with a press conference and endless statements on social media. The group has long-established links with radical Islam; its outreach director is Moazzam Begg, the former Guantanamo detainee who was recently charged with training for terrorism and funding terrorism in Syria, but had the charges against him dropped last October.

Asim Qureshi, Cage’s research director, became emotional at the press conference, describing Emwazi, whose identity he had personally played a part in revealing, as a “beautiful, extremely kind young man”. Qureshi had appeared in a video filmed a few years ago calling for Muslims to “support the jihad of our brothers and sisters”.

The British government did not give an official response. Long after American authorities had yesterday confirmed the identity of Jihadi John, and this had become global news, they were still bizarrely refusing to make any comment. As is the case in such situations, however, officials gave their version of the narrative privately.

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CAGE research director, Asim Qureshi (AP)

Emwazi was part of a group of youths who prayed at the same mosque. Two others were Lebanese born Bilal al-Berjawi and Mohamd Sakr, born of Egyptian parentage. Both the men went to Somalia to join the Islamist group al-Shabaab and died in US drone strikes.

Berjawi and Sakr had made their first attempt to get into Somalia through Kenya in 2009, claiming they were there on safari. A search of their hotel room uncovered a laptop containing manuals on making car bombs.

The same year, Emwazi arrived in neighbouring Tanzania with a companion also claiming to be on safari. The local police and British intelligence held that his plan was to slip over the border and join al-Shabaab. He was deported to the Netherlands, from where he had taken his flight. He was met at Schipol Airport, he claimed, by an MI5 officer who attempted to recruit him as an agent.

 

Emwazi claimed the encounter upset him, and he became increasingly anxious as further attempts to recruit him continued. Security sources say that he was proficient at counter-surveillance while maintaining contacts with extremists.

That September, Emwazi travelled to Kuwait to stay with his father’s family, returning in July the next year. But the Kuwaitis refused to give him a visa to return, something he blamed on British pressure. Security officials insist that the decision was solely that of the Kuwaiti government, and say there was no obvious intelligence advantage of keeping him in Britain. He could not be deported to a third country as he was a UK citizen.

Emwazi’s presence in Isis became quickly known to Western intelligence services. His friends in London did not reveal what made him a killer of journalists and aid workers. But the questions will keep coming.

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