I first met the notorious Islamic State (Isis) killer Mohammed Emwazi in December 2010. Then he was a 22-year-old computer science graduate from west London. The impressionable Emwazi had been drawn into a network of British jihadists that was being closely monitored by MI5. When I knew him he was very angry, complaining that the security services had destroyed two serious relationships with women he intended to marry and had blocked him from returning to Kuwait, which he regarded as his home. I wanted to help but the planned article didn’t work out and we lost contact with each other in March 2011.
Four years later I came across him again – in a series of grotesque videos as the masked murderer of Isis who rejoiced in the beheading of innocent civilians. It was almost impossible to believe this was the same person. The man I knew was not a natural born killer. In just four years he had turned from Islamist agitator to psychopathic mass murderer. But it is easy to forget that Emwazi was not the cause of the hostages’ deaths – he was only the instrument.
Emwazi was thoroughly westernised and so held great symbolic value for Isis. But he was always only a puppet of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the terror group’s leader, and his emirs. When his identity was revealed in February and he was shown to be an ordinary, shy Londoner who struggled to get on with girls he immediately lost his mystique and more importantly his propaganda value.
As far as al-Baghdadi was concerned he had outlived his usefulness. He will have no trouble replacing Emwazi from his cadre of killers. And his death will not deter other British jihadists from following in his footsteps to join the ranks of the caliphate. There are plenty of young Muslim men living in the UK who have similar grievances. The terrible events in Paris on Friday night serve as a graphic reminder of what happens when these young people turn their grievances into terrorism.
The inevitable political response to such atrocities is to introduce tougher counter-terrorism policies and invoke rhetoric about winning wars and destroying our enemies.
In France, the security services and prosecutors enjoy some of the widest investigative powers in the world. These have demonstrably failed to protect the French people from two devastating terror attacks in less than 10 months. Today, France’s Arab Muslim communities who live in the capital’s suburbs are more marginalised than ever.
We can’t win a war on terrorism simply by arresting more and more people. We need properly reasoned policies which will stop grievances turning into terrorism.
'Jihadi John – the Making of a Terrorist' by Robert Verkaik, will be published by Oneworld Publications in spring 2016