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The life and radicalization of Mohammed Emwazi, ISIS's British executioner

"Jihadi John," the English-accented ISIS militant who beheaded Western hostages on camera, has been identified as Mohammed Emwazi
"Jihadi John," the English-accented ISIS militant who beheaded Western hostages on camera, has been identified as Mohammed Emwazi
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In 2012, British national Mohammed Emwazi disappeared from his home in London and traveled to Syria, where within a year he was seen at a jihadist-run facility. He guarded and tortured the captives, some of whom were Western journalists and aid workers. In 2014, ISIS released the first of several videos showing the beheadings of those captives. Wielding the knife, according to UK intelligence services, was Emwazi, who became known as Jihadi John.

What is known about Emwazi's life before 2012 does not paint an obvious picture of why he joined ISIS. He was born in Kuwait, grew up in a middle-class family in West London, and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming. A natural question, then, is why Emwazi went from a seemingly normal young man to a jihadist mass-murderer. Or, in the parlance of terrorism analysts, why did he radicalize?

The answer is no more knowable in his case than it is in any other, though it has already become a subject of wide debate. Much of the conversation comes down a trip he took to Tanzania in 2009, shortly after graduating college, and to the three subsequent years before he traveled to Syria. This trip, rightly or wrongly, has become the focal point of early efforts to understand Emwazi's turn to terror.

Emwazi's narrative: radicalized by overzealous British counter-terrorism efforts

If Emwazi is to be believed, then as of 2009 he was an innocent, carefree young man who traveled to Tanzania with two friends for a safari. That began, in his telling, three years of harassment from British intelligence that ruined his life and left him isolated and angry.

After the trip, he got in touch with a British advocacy group called CAGE, to recount his version of events. (As CAGE is the source of his testimony, it should be noted that the group is invested in certain policy outcomes, namely an end to what it describes as the UK's "war on terror.") Over the course of three years, he described himself as increasingly frustrated and outraged by his treatment by British authorities. That testimony, and CAGE's presentation of it, provide not just this narrative but much of the information about Emwazi that is currently available.

Emwazi told CAGE that, on his arrival in Tanzania, he was detained and deported by Tanzanian officials. On his flight back home, while stopping over in the Netherlands, he was detained again, and interrogated by a member of the UK intelligence agency MI5, who accused him of traveling to Tanzania to join Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab. This led Emwazi and CAGE to believe that Tanzania had deported him at the behest of UK intelligence agencies. The MI5 official also asked Emwazi to work with them as an informant; he refused.

According to Emwazi and CAGE, UK intelligence continued to harass him over the next three years. After Tanzania, Emwazi traveled to Kuwait, where he got a job at a computer company and got engaged. The engagement broke off, and he got engaged to another woman. In May 2010, he flew back to London. When he tried to return to Kuwait in June, he was detained overnight by police at the London airport. After being released, he was told that Kuwait had cancelled his visa; he would have to abandon both the job and the fiancée.

CAGE blames British intelligence for the break-up of both of Emwazi's engagements, the loss of his job in Kuwait, and the sense of isolation and estrangement that contributed to his radicalization. In this narrative, he was a victim, pushed by counterproductive and misguided Western practices into becoming a terrorist.

According to CAGE, Emwazi's first engagement broke off because British intelligence officials visited her in Kuwait. "This contact with Mohammed's fiancée had the effect of scaring her and her family from him — the marriage was off," according to CAGE. This is one of many logical leaps the group makes in its case that British intelligence is to blame for Emwazi's problems and radicalization. Similarly, CAGE claims without evidence that Kuwaiti officials cancelled Emwazi's visa at the UK's behest.

The June 2010 loss of Emwazi's Kuwait visa, and thus of his new life there, must indeed have been difficult. Over the next two years, Emwazi contacted CAGE repeatedly for help in returning to Kuwait. CAGE's representatives describe Emwazi as seeming increasingly distressed, and as blaming the UK for his problems.

"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."

That is where Emwazi's testimony to CAGE ends: with him feeling victimized and outraged by UK policies that he feels targeted him unfairly and ruined his life. Soon after, he was in Syria.

CAGE alleges that British intelligence agencies deliberately destroyed his life as punishment for "Mohammed's refusal to work for the MI5." There is little evidence for this charge.

Still, a number of observers have read the evidence that CAGE does present as showing that overzealous British counter-terrorism efforts left Emwazi isolated and embittered, and that after three years of struggling to regain control of his life he was left so hopeless that he was practically pushed into flying to Syria.

The other narrative: hints of radicalization going back years

British officials have not publicly commented on the case yet, and so have presented no narrative as to what happened between 2009 and 2012.

If the British intelligence officer whom Emwazi describes as interrogating him in 2009 is to be believed, then Emwazi traveled to Tanzania that year already planning to join a jihadist terrorist group.

One detail, uncovered by the Washington Post, suggests that Emwazi at least showed hints of sympathy for jihadist extremism before he traveled to Syria in 2012. In late 2010, when a US court sentenced the female al-Qaeda member Aafia Siddiqui, Emwazi called it "upsetting news regarding our sister." He reportedly stated to CAGE, "This should only keep us firmer towards fighting for freedom and justice!!!"

Stating solidarity with Siddiqui does not prove anything, but it is a notable datapoint regarding Emwazi's thinking at that time. Siddiqui and her imprisonment in the US are a cause célèbre among jihadists. If Emwazi were truly nothing more than a well-meaning young man who was forced into jihadism by police harassment, as CAGE implies, then it is unclear why he would feel invested in Siddiqui's case.

Also, the UK was not the only country that showed suspicion of Emwazi in 2009 and 2010, years when he was supposedly free of extremism. First, Tanzania deported him in 2009 — no small step — then Kuwait cancelled his visa in 2010. The UK, though it may have shared intelligence, does not control these countries. It is possible that all three countries were mistaken about Emwazi. But the fact that all three were so concerned about him as to take such extreme steps suggest that there may well have been red flags we don't yet know about.

This narrative will be tested in the coming days and weeks, as more information about Emwazi likely emerges. If it turns out that he showed signs of radicalization or even of plans to act as early as 2009 or 2010, that will significantly undermine the CAGE narrative that he was a previously innocent bullied into radicalism by British officials. If no such signs exist, then it will raise questions about why officials targeted Emwazi so aggressively.

Whatever happened, only Mohammed Emwazi and ISIS are ultimately to blame

Whichever narrative is closer to the truth, there are two important details to remember.

First, Emwazi is an adult with agency and is responsible for his choices. Many innocent British Muslims have endured interrogations, searches, or travel difficulties. The vast majority of them did not then rush to join ISIS, because they are rational human beings who deplore murder and extremism.

Some critics of British anti-terrorism policies have blamed those policies for radicalizing Emwazi, thus implying that British Muslims are inherently violently or dangerous people who could become mass-murderers if they experience travel difficulties. They are not. To suggest that they have no agency is condescending and unhelpful.

Second, though, even if Emwazi did travel to Tanzania hoping to join al-Shabaab in 2009, it would still be at least another three years before he succeeded in joining a terrorist organization. During that time, he sought marriage and an IT job — not activities that suggest a single-minded obsession with jihadism.

It would seem that, in that three-year window, Emwazi's commitment to jihadism was less than complete. That was the window in which he could have been turned back from extremism, but wasn't. While his experiences with British, Tanzanian, and Kuwaiti authorities in those years cannot be blamed for his radicalization, it doesn't seem they did a great deal to help.

Critics of Western counter-terrorism practices have long warned that these policies have over-emphasized policing and under-emphasized outreach, worsening the isolation and alienation that can feed into extremism. It is not yet clear whether that happened in this case, but it seems like a potential factor, and one worth examining, even as we rightly place the blame for Emwazi's choices on his shoulders.