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What we know about Mohammed Emwazi, the Brit who became ISIS's beheader

A still image from ISIS's beheading video shows the British militant known as Jihadi John, now identified as Mohammed Emwazi
A still image from ISIS's beheading video shows the British militant known as Jihadi John, now identified as Mohammed Emwazi
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  • The ISIS militant who beheaded several Western hostages on camera has been identified as a British citizen named Mohammed Emwazi, according to British intelligence services.
  • Emwazi, who was born in Kuwait, grew up in a comfortable, middle class family in London and studied computer programming in college.
  • In 2009, Emwazi flew to Tanzania with two friends for what they said was a safari. But Tanzanian and later British officials accused him of trying to join al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group allied with al-Qaeda. In 2012, he traveled to Syria and later joined ISIS.

Who is Mohammed Emwazi, also known as Jihadi John?

The first years of Emwazi's life were the picture of a successful immigrant family. He was born in the wealthy Arab state of Kuwait in 1988. In 1990, Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Kuwait, but was pushed out the next year by a multi-national force. A few years later, when Emwazi was six, his family moved to the United Kingdom, where he grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in West London.

The young Emwazi is described by friends, according to the Washington Post, as "polite" with "a penchant for wearing stylish clothes while adhering to the tenets of his Islamic faith." He graduated from the University of Westminster with a degree in computer programming. The details that have been so far reported of his life suggest no warning signs until 2009, which is when things seemed to turn.

In 2009, after graduating college, Emwazi and two friends flew to Tanzania for what they have said was a safari. But, on landing, they were detained by police, held overnight, and deported. On flying back to Europe, the three men stopped over in the Netherlands and were detained again by police, Emwazi told the advocacy group CAGE. He says he was interviewed by a member of the British intelligence service MI5, who accused him of trying to travel to Somalia to join the al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group al-Shabaab.

On returning to London, Emwazi met with a representative from CAGE, who described the young man as "incensed by his treatment."

Emwazi then moved to Kuwait, where he got a job working with a computer company and met a woman he planned to marry, though the engagement later fell apart. He flew back to the UK at least twice. After one trip, when he tried to fly from London back to Kuwait, Emwazi was searched and detained for several hours by police. Afterward, he was told that Kuwait had cancelled his visa and he would not be allowed to fly back.

He remained in the UK. Some friends told the Washington Post that Emwazi attempted to move to Saudi Arabia to teach English, but was unable to. In 2012, he disappeared; it is believed he traveled to Syria, where the civil war was raging. He later joined ISIS.

The next year, in 2013, Emwazi was spotted at a facility run by extremist rebels in Idlib, Syria, that housed Western hostages. Former hostages say that Emwazi helped guard and torture the hostages, including by waterboarding them.

In August 2014, ISIS posted the first video showing the murder of one such hostage, American journalist James Foley. Emwazi was shown beheading him on camera. Later videos appeared to show Emwazi, who became known in the UK press as "Jihadi John," committing more murders.

Why did Emwazi radicalize?

There are two narratives for this, both of which begin in 2009.

The first, presented by Emwazi himself to CAGE, which backs it up, is that he was an innocent young man as of 2009 when he traveled to Tanzania for vacation. This, they say, was the beginning of his harassment at the hands of British intelligence, which eventually became so overwhelming that it drove him to radicalize.

In this telling, Emwazi's life from 2009 to 2012 was increasingly curtailed by British intelligence. First, it orchestrated his deportation from Tanzania because it wrongly believed he had been trying to join al-Shabaab. Then, it destroyed Emwazi's first engagement in Kuwait, by telling Kuwaiti intelligence that he was a threat, and thus leading Kuwaiti intelligence to visit his fiancee's family and scare them away from the engagement. It destroyed his second engagement in Kuwait in 2010, as well as robbing him of a computer job there, by detaining him while he was in London and orchestrating Kuwait's revocation of his visa.

"This is a young man who was ready to exhaust every single kind of avenue within the machinery of the state to bring a change for his personal situation," Asim Qureshi of CAGE told the Post. According to Qureshi, Emwazi believed "actions were taken to criminalize him and he had no way to do something against these actions."

The second narrative, the one suggested by the British intelligence officer whom Emwazi describes as interrogating him in 2009, hints that Emwazi may have already radicalized by that 2009 trip, when the officer allegedly accused him of trying to join al-Shabaab. Because British officials have not yet commented on the case, the only source we have for this narrative is Emwazi himself, who recounted the interrogation to CAGE.

There may be some truth to both versions of events. After all, many British Muslims have been interrogated or detained by police or intelligence services, or otherwise had their lives disrupted in small or large ways, and yet the vast majority would never even consider joining ISIS. It is important to remember that Emwazi is an adult with agency and free will; even if it is true that British officials harassed him or his family, Emwazi and ISIS alone are responsible for their decision to gruesomely murder so many innocents on camera.